Scholar-Activism

Ida B. Wells and the First Antilynching Campaign

Ida B. Wells was well poised to take on the epidemic of lynching in Memphis. The daughter of a carpenter and homemaker, Wells had to start caring for her five younger sibling when she was sixteen after her parents and an infant sibling succumbed to yellow fever.

Lynching refers to murder committed by a mob of three or more persons. According to Paula Giddings, the death of Thomas Moss galvanized the first antilynching campaign in the U.S led by women like Ida B. Wells:

The lynching of March 9, 1892, was the climax of ugly events in Memphis. From the time the three Black men had gone into business for themselves, their People’s Grocery, as it was called, had been the target of White resentment… The start-up capital for the grocery had been provided by Moss, a postman who was the city’s first Black to hold a federal position…For Whites the most galling thing about the People’s Grocery was that it took away business from a White store owner who had long been used to a monopoly of Black trade. The White proprietor initiated against the Black businessmen a series of provocations that culminated in an attack of armed thugs sent to raze the grocery.1

Racial division existed in media portrayals as White press in Memphis sensationalized the lynching, spreading racist stereotypes of Black life to maintain the notion of brutish, criminal Blacks and innocent Whites. In the aftermath of the lynching, a judge ordered Whites to shoot any Black demonstrator causing trouble which thus enabled them to loot and vandalize the store.

Ida B. Wells and the Black Press

Yet the mainstream media were not the only ones with a pen. Ida B. Wells, a friend of Moss, wrote a column on his death and called for Black people to boycott and a mass exodus from Memphis. Wells’s call to action led business owners to panic.

Ida B. Wells was well poised to take on the epidemic of lynching in Memphis. The daughter of a carpenter and homemaker, Wells had to start caring for her five younger sibling when she was sixteen after her parents and an infant sibling succumbed to yellow fever.

Wells wrote by the pen name Iola and pursued an education as a teacher. Fed up with injustices in her community, she took to the papers as a columnist as she took on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in court.

Wells writing about the injustices around her would later lead her to be the first Black woman secretary of the National Afro-American Press Association. Yet, after an expose on the Memphis School System, she lost her job as a teacher. Wells, ever the innovative thinker, traveled across the United States to increase subscriptions to the Free Press, the imprint for which she wrote.

When Wells broke the story on Thomas Moss, she unraveled centuries worth of racial taboo that society had long kept confined to a narrative of hypersexual Jezebels and Black male savages.Indeed accusations of rape preceded many lynchings, as was the case for Emmett Till:

Only a third of the murdered Blacks were even accused of rape, much less guilty of it, Wells discovered. Most were killed for crimes like “incendiarism,” “race prejudice,” “quarreling with Whites,” and “making threats.” Furthermore, not only men but women and even children were lynched.2

Wells also uncovered that Black men and White women engaged in consensual interracial relationships – a fact that contradicted the justifications for widespread lynching. Even liberal reformers like Jane Addams claimed Black men had a penchant for rape. In response, people looted and burned her newspaper office to the ground.

Other members of the press and Black women came to Wells’s aid, providing her space to write about lynching and even publish a booklet she titled “Southern Horrors.” Her column on lynching in The New York Age sold in the thousands and landed her a biweekly column at the paper.


  1. Paula Giddings 1984: 35-6 
  2. Paula Giddings 1984:104 

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