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The Truth Will Unite Us: Ida B. Wells and That Theory of Hers (Part One)

Updated on February 4, 2019
Cover, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, by Ida B. Wells.
Cover, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, by Ida B. Wells. | Source

Please note: There are quotations from Wells and her contemporaries (ca. 1890s), in addition to quotes from contemporary (ca. 1890s) newspapers in which they use the words “negro” and “colored.” I use these words only in direct quotes, not in my own analysis or narrative.

Wells seems to have spent the two months after her friends’ murder carefully planning how to sabotage one of the most successful boycotts in American history. In May 1892, Wells published the following editorial in the Free Speech:

“Eight negroes lynched since last issue of the _Free Speech_ one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket--the new alarm about raping white women. The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter.

“Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” 1

Needless to say, the editorial caused outrage in the white community. The Memphis Commercial published this response:

“The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. But we have had enough of it.” 2

Their rival paper, The Evening Scimitar, published the Commercial’s response and, not to be outdone, added:

“If the negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor's shears.” 3

Cover of The Graphic Chicago, with an illustration of the lynch mob attack on the People's Grocery in Memphis, TN.
Cover of The Graphic Chicago, with an illustration of the lynch mob attack on the People's Grocery in Memphis, TN. | Source

In retaliation to Wells’ editorials, a mob of angry white men gathered. There were talks of a lynching, but after realizing that Wells was (most likely) the author of the editorial but not currently in Memphis, the mob instead descended upon the First Baptist Church on Beale, broke in, and demolished the offices of the Free Speech. They burned the building. They ran the Speech’s co-owner, J.L. Fleming, out of town with promises of a lynching if he ever returned.

Wells further refused to take any responsibility whatsoever for Fleming getting run out of Memphis:

“Since the manager of the _Free Speech_ has been run away from Memphis by the guardians of the honor of Southern white women.” 4

No, Ida. He was run out of town because of what you wrote.

Aside: In Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), Wells makes this curious statement:

“Creditors took possession of the office and sold the outfit, and the _Free Speech_ was as if it had never been.” 5

What there would have been left to seize and sell off after a mob attacked and burned the building is, unfortunately, a question that will have to be left to the ages. Wells was, however, known to be in constant debt. We’ll just leave this here, for you to ponder.

This is new information uncovered during additional research:

In the meantime, the judge who refused to prosecute the lynchers had been disbarred, but the police and Barrett seemed untouchable:

"The Judge of the Criminal Court at the time of this butchery was J. J. DuBose. What effort did he make to bring to punishment these lynchers?

"Not one. Calmly, as though no great crime had been committed within a little distance of the supposedly sacred tribunal over which he presided, he kept the even tenor of his way, giving no official recognition of the deed, and no evidence to the world that his hand was holding the power that, properly used, is a defense to the humblest citizen against the vicious and cruel hand of the murderer, the mob or the despoiler of the fireside. The indifference thus shown by the man who was honored with a position and clothed with an authority that is majestic in its reach and grasp, boded no good to society. It was pregnant with rapine, anarchy and all the unleashed furies of hell. But though this judge forgot what the great Burke said in his speech in the impeachment of Warren Hastings that - "There is but one law for all : namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity; the law of Nature and of nations,"

"There swiftly came to him a realization of the truth of these words from Ben Jonson's "Cataline":

The gods / Grow angry with your patience; 'tis their care, / And must be yours, that guilty men escape not. / As crimes do grow, justice should rouse itself.

"For the outraged honor of the State of Tennessee arraigned this Judge before the bar of judgment and after a fair and impartial trial stripped him of his judicial robes and said to the world that he was unworthy to sit in judgment upon one of her tribunals of law and justice. Charges of all sorts and degrees had been preferred against the complacent Judge, piling up against him like Pelion on Ossa and when the verdict of the Senate of the State Legislature was rendered it made declaration that the man who would wear the ermine of a Tennessee judge must wear it as stainless as the unsullied robe of the vestal virgin.

"But what of the other officers of the Criminal Court, Attorney General George B. Peters and Sheriff A. J. McLendon ? Simply this: Confronted by the indifference of the Judge they could do nothing in hunting down the butchers of these three negroes. Did they try ? It is not so recorded. Was there a political pressure, the menacing threat of a secret, but all-powerful clan, standing across their path that gave pause and halt and flight to their initial steps towards apprehending the Criminals ? Did the edict of certain death to their future political and official aspirations if they persisted in uncovering this midnight crime hang over them like the sword of Damocles ? They are brave men; morally and physically both are courageous and it can hardly be believed that any form of threat or intimidation would deter them from doing their duty and keeping inviolate their sacred oaths. Why, then, did they not pursue the game and run it to cover? The real answer cannot here be given. Let this simple statement stand as an explanation, unsatisfactory as it may seem: They were baffled at every turn; they listened to the voice of a public sentiment that was at once foolish, hurtful and criminal in its logical sequence.

"The night after the "riot" at the "Curve" the respectable citizens of that neighborhood, regardless of age, color or previous condition of servitude, held an indignation meeting and wound up by passing a series of red hot resolutions in which the delectable Barrett and his dive were metaphorically roasted, as was also the wretched official policy of the city which gave birth and fostering care to such breeding pools of vice and degradation and trouble and infamy. Upon Barrett this meeting laid the responsibility for the bloodshed of the night previous. But the man with a political pull is a power !" **

The First Baptist Church on Beale, ca. 1880s.  The church would have looked this way in Ida B. Wells' era.
The First Baptist Church on Beale, ca. 1880s. The church would have looked this way in Ida B. Wells' era. | Source
The First Baptist Church on Beale, ca. 1910.
The First Baptist Church on Beale, ca. 1910. | Source

Wells stated in Southern Horrors that, coincidentally, she just happened to be out of town on vacation in New York City (other accounts state Natchez, MS) when the editorial was published. Yes, it could have been a coincidence that she was out of town when this wildly inflammatory (and unnecessary) editorial was published. More likely, however, was that she knew perfectly well how inflammatory it was, and left town before its publication. It also explains why, in Southern Horrors, she stated she was far away from “lynch law” in New York City, as her life would certainly have been in danger in nearby Natchez, Mississippi. It does not, however, explain how she justified putting her co-owner, and Rev. Nightingale’s flock, in mortal danger.

Apparently not wanting to give the impression she was spending too much time alienating Memphis’ white community, Wells worked diligently to alienate herself from Memphis’ black community, too. In February 1893, Wells wrote to Albion Winegar Tourgée asking for his legal advice and counsel, in a civil case two African American lawyers had filed against her. 6

Reverend Nightingale, her former business partner, seems to have ceased all contact with Wells a year earlier, when he was run out of town. Fleming also seems to have cut all contact with Wells after the incident, as she never mentioned him again in her writing outside this incident, and there is no evidence in her archives that he corresponded with her.

The People's Grocery.
The People's Grocery. | Source

In this statement, a couple of years after the lynching, Wells expressed the contempt she had for her own people, when they didn’t lockstep into agreement with her:

“There was a colored man present at Bloomsbury chapel when the above resolution was passed the other day and I heard he wished to speak to the resolution. He said he was a journalist, but I didn't learn his name. Dr. Clifford told me next day that he sent up a card to the chairman asking permission to speak; that he wished to show that the outrages were not as had been pictured! A speech like that from a Negro would have destroyed all that Dr. Clifford, Mr. Aked and I had done to overcome the scruples of the committee to permit the resolution to go on the agenda! I don't know where this Negro came from, nor could I learn his name, but I was speechless with rage. One is in a measure prepared to have white people, especially Americans, doubt and deny; but to have a Negro who can do absolutely nothing to put a stop to these outrages, doing what he can to stop others, is monstrous! No wonder such little headway is made in our demand for justice, when the race against them but must needs be cursed with such spawn calling themselves men. There are a few such in the United States who cringe and bow before the white man and call black white at his dictation. These Negroes, who run when white men tell them to do so, and stand up and let the white man knock them down or killing them if it suits his pleasure, are the ones who see no good in "fire-eating speeches." Such Negroes do nothing themselves to stop, lynching, are too cowardly to do so, and too anxious to preserve a whole skin if they could, but never fail to raise their voices in deprecation of others who are trying to do whatever can be done to stop the infamy of killing Negroes at the rate of one a day.

“I can never forget to my dying day that when I gave the world the true facts about lynching and the foul charge against the men of my race, it was three Negro men of Memphis who raised a protest. Not that what I said was not true, but that "it would do no good" to tell such things. The white men of Memphis and other towns could not gainsay my facts and have not done so to this day, but these Negro men, wishing to gain favor in the eyes of Mr. White Man, hastened to put a letter in the white man's paper condemning the exposure of the southern white man's methods. Thank God, the breed of this stamp of cowards is a small one, and it is not right to blame the whole race for the expressions of those who earn the contempt of the white men they would serve and the far-sighted men and women of our own race.

“The warm, helpful, inspiring, grateful letters I receive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, make me feel that the bulk of my people so far from "laying a straw in my path," know that my labors are for them, and they assure me of their prayers and support. While this holds true, the barking of a few curs cannot make me lose heart or hope. Ida B. Wells. In N.Y. Age.” 7

She was, predictably, exiled from Memphis for many years after.

The lynching of Laura Nelson and her son, L.D. Nelson.  Either Laura or L.D. killed a sheriff's deputy; they were taken from the county jail and lynched.  Laura's baby, Carrie, lay on the river bank while her mother and brother were lynched.
The lynching of Laura Nelson and her son, L.D. Nelson. Either Laura or L.D. killed a sheriff's deputy; they were taken from the county jail and lynched. Laura's baby, Carrie, lay on the river bank while her mother and brother were lynched. | Source

Angered by the murder of her friend, and not having stirred up enough trouble with her editorial, Wells then inexplicably penned Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. As in the editorial that got her exiled from Memphis, Southern Horrors placed all of the blame for lynchings square at the feet of white female rape victims. She wrote that white women were not victims - had never been victims - but rather “Delilahs” that seduced unsuspecting black men into having consensual sex with them, at their great peril. Wells further explained that it was white women who exposed these consensual relationships in order to not only save themselves, but punish their black lovers for their sexual prowess.

After the murder of her friend two months earlier - a murder that was not, in any way, prompted by a rape accusation - Wells came to the conclusion that white women’s insatiable sexual urges were the real cause of lynchings:

“This statement is not a shield for the despoiler of virtue, nor altogether a defense for the poor blind Afro-American Sampsons who suffer themselves to be betrayed by white Delilahs.” 8

“A few instances to substantiate the assertion that some white women love the company of the Afro-American will not be out of place.” 9

“Hundreds of such cases might be cited, but enough have been given to prove the assertion that there are white women in the South who love the Afro-American's company even as there are white men notorious for their preference for Afro-American women.” 10

“Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women.” 11

Wells said this ... about rape victims.

She even parroted the blatantly misogynist lies of men like J.C. Duke, owner of the Herald:

"Why is it that white women attract negro men now more than in former days? There was a time when such a thing was unheard of. There is a secret to this thing, and we greatly suspect it is the growing appreciation of white Juliets for colored Romeos." 12

She then continued with her own, misogynistic analysis:

“Mr. Duke, like the _Free Speech_ proprietors, was forced to leave the city for reflecting on the "honah" of white women and his paper suppressed; but the truth remains that Afro-American men do not always rape (?) white women without their consent.” 13

Anti-lynching activists.
Anti-lynching activists. | Source

Wells noted in Southern Horrors that she was prompted to write her editorial after researching lynchings and finding that, in the week before she wrote it, eight out of five lynching victims had been accused of rape.

This information is shamefully inaccurate and biased. Maybe Wells could be forgiven for writing it the first time. There was no excuse for it continuing to appear in subsequent editions.

Let’s examine a few statistics about lynchings; statistics that you don’t often hear about. Up until 1885, far more white men were lynched per year than black men. For the next 4 years, until 1889, about equal numbers of white and black men were lynched. “Lynching” does not mean that the victims were hanged, it means that they were victims of vigilante justice. Victims were as likely to be shot, burned to death or even drowned as they were to be hanged. 14

Predictably, black men were victims of lynching in the south more than anywhere else. States in which you would expect high numbers of black men to be lynched - like Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama - lived up to the stereotype. There were states - like Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona - where the vast majority (or all) of the lynching victims were white. There are a handful of northern states in which no lynching ever occurred, unless you count the Salem Witch Trials (and the Salem Witch Trials should absolutely be recognized as lynchings).

Let’s go back to January 1, 1892, to get a clearer picture. The following is a list of all people, including women, who were lynched in the four and half months prior to publication of Wells' editorial. Please note that all lynching victims were men, except where otherwise noted. Lynchings that occurred in May 1892 have been highlighted (May 5, 1892, saw an extraordinary number of lynchings):


  • Harry Hinton, January 1, 1892, Choctaw County, AL, Black, Outlaw
  • G H Rose, May 5, 1892, Choctaw County, AL, Black, Attempted rape
  • Wm Webb, February 2, 1892, Dallas County, AL, Black, Assaulted woman (rape)
  • Unnamed Negro, February 2, 1892, Tuscaloosa County, AL, Black, Robbery & arson
  • Unnamed Negro, February 2, 1892, Tuscaloosa County, AL, Black, Robbery & arson


  • Henry Beavers, February 2, 1892, Drew County, AR, Black, Assaulted woman
  • Culbert Harris, February 2, 1892, Jefferson County, AR, Black, Accomplice to murder
  • John Kelly, February 2, 1892, Jefferson County, AR, Black, Murder
  • George Harris, February 2, 1892, Lincoln County, AR, Black, Murder
  • Ed Coy, February 2, 1892, Miller County, AR, Black, Assaulted woman (rape)
  • Charles Stewart, May 5, 1892, Perry County, AR, White, Murder
  • McArthur, May 5, 1892, Perry County, AR, White, Advising murder
  • McArthur, May 5, 1892, Perry County, AR, White, Advising murder
  • McArthur, May 5, 1892, Perry County, AR, White, Advising murder


  • Wm West, April 4, 1892, Dooly County, GA, Black, Murder
  • Jim Redmond, May 5, 1892, Habersham County, GA, Black, Murder
  • Gus Roberson, May 5, 1892, Habersham County, GA, Black, Murder
  • Bob Addison, May 5, 1892, Habersham County, GA, Black, Murder


  • Henry Hinson, January 1, 1892, Alachua County, FL, Black, Murder
  • Jerry Williams, April 4, 1892, Citrus County, FL, Black, Murder
  • Wm Williams, April 4, 1892, Citrus County, FL, Black, Murder
  • George Davis, April 4, 1892, Citrus County, FL, Black, Murder
  • Albert Robinson, April 4, 1892, Citrus County, FL, Black, Murder
  • Walter Austin, February 2 1892, DeSoto County, FL, Black, Murder
  • James Williams, May 5, 1892, Putnam County, FL, Unknown, Murder & robbery
  • Henry E Bedgood, May 5, 1892, Putnam County, FL, Unknown, Murder & robbery


  • Wick Willis, May 5, 1892, Adair County, KY, Black, Attempted rape
  • Lige Gibson, January 1, 1892, Owen County, KY, Unknown, Murder


  • Dennis Cobb, March 3, 1892, Bienville County, LA, Black, Unknown
  • Walker, May 5, 1892, Bienville County, LA, Black, Improper with white girl
  • Nathan Andrews, January 1, 1892, Bossier County, LA, Black, Murder
  • Unnamed Negro, April 4, 1892, Grant County, LA, Black, Murder
  • Unnamed Negro, April 4, 1892, Grant County, LA, Black, Murder
  • Unnamed Negro, April 4, 1892, Grant County, LA, Black, Murder
  • Unnamed Negro, April 4, 1892, Grant County, LA, Black, Murder
  • Jack Tillman, March 3, 1892, Jefferson County, LA, Black, Arguing with white men
  • Freeman, April 4, 1892, Pointe Coupee County, LA, White, Murder & robbery
  • Ella, March 3, 1892, Richland County, LA, Black, Female, Attempted murder
  • Horace Dishroon, January 1, 1892, Richland County, LA, Black, Murder
  • Eli Foster, January 1, 1892, Richland County, LA, Black, Murder


  • John Robinson, February 2, 1892, Bolivar County, MS, Black, Murder & robbery
  • Unnamed Negro, April 4, 1892, Washington County, MS, Black, Rape


  • Edward Chisolm, May 5, 1892, Berkeley County, SC, Black, Injuring livestock
  • Dave Shaw, May 5, 1892, Laurens County, SC, Black, Burglary


  • Mrs Martin, February 2, 1892, Chester County, TN, Black, Female, Mother of arsonists
  • Charles Everett, May 5, 1892, Coffee County, TN, Black, Attempted assault on woman
  • Eph Grizzard, April 4, 1892, Davidson County, TN, Black, Rape
  • Henry Grizzard, April 4, 1892, Davidson County, TN, Black, Rape
  • Unnamed Negro, March 3, 1892, Hardin County, TN, Black, Assault
  • Calvin McDowell, March 3, 1892, Shelby County, TN, Black, Murderous assault
  • Thomas Moss, March 3, 1892, Shelby County, TN, Black, Murderous assault
  • Wm Stuart, March 3. 1892, Shelby County, TN, Black, Murderous assault 15

Scene after a 20th century lynching.
Scene after a 20th century lynching. | Source

Out of 52 lynchings that occurred between January and May 1892, only 9 were suspected of sexual assault; that means a little over 17% of lynching victims were accused of rape, a far cry from Wells’ theory that over 62% of lynching victims were black men accused of rape. Two victims were women, and 6 male victims were white; four of the victims were white men, all lynched together on May 5, 1892. The year 1892 was also the worst year for lynchings: 230 people were lynched (161 black, 69 white).

The murder of Thomas Moss, Henry Stewart and Calvin McDowell was a terrible crime. There was no way for Memphis’ white community to justify that lynching in any way; indeed, many condemned it. The black community’s subsequent boycott against the white community nearly shut down the city. The story was covered in newspapers all over the United States and caused whites to further sympathize with the plight of African Americans in the south.

What specifically caused Ida B. Wells to take a hard right off point died along with her. The entire foundation of Wells’ theory was FALSE. This is important; by spreading that false information, Wells may have exacerbated the lynching problem rather than alleviated it.

Suffragettes eventually resorted to more drastic measures, including arson.  This is the Tea House Kew Garden, in England, burned by militant suffragettes.
Suffragettes eventually resorted to more drastic measures, including arson. This is the Tea House Kew Garden, in England, burned by militant suffragettes. | Source

Within two months, Ida B. Wells fabricated and disseminated the myth that white women and black men were having a lot of consensual sex, and white men hated that so much, they were willing to kill over it. Wells further theorized that no black man had committed any crime, no evidence existed to convict those black men, and that white women not only accused their lovers of rape - which, according to Wells, guaranteed a death sentence - but also that police believed whatever lie white women came up with and arrested the first black man they happened upon.

She planted the seed of an idea, and that idea grew into an invasive noxious weed. While the number of lynchings per year never reached 1892 levels again, the number of whites lynched plummeted, while the number of African Americans lynched stayed the same for the next 30 years.

If Wells’ theory were true, then white men weren’t only using lynchings to scare black men, they were also using them to scare white women into submission. Women are socialized to “be nice” from, well … BIRTH. If Wells’ theory was correct, then lynchings were meant to send crystal clear messages to rebellious white women who chose black men over white men. Lynchings exposed “inferior” white women in interracial relationships as impure, sexual deviants, unworthy of love from white men, dooming them to the life of an Old Maid. They sent a clear message to any white women who felt butterflies around black men: “Yes, we will kill the man you love. You give us no other choice. It is your fault we killed him.”

At the time, white women were fighting for equal rights in a system under which they, too, were being oppressed, albeit oppressed in a gilded cage. These were the early days of women fighting for voting rights, reproductive rights, property rights, and labor rights. Suffragettes burned down a church in England to oppose the marriage vow of obeying one's husband. White women rising up against their oppression would have been equally disruptive to the status quo - if not more disruptive - than the abolition of slavery.

Wells also theorized that all accusations of the alleged crimes were unfounded. In some cases, not only were there white and black witnesses to the crime … not only did authorities secure a true confession from the perpetrator, but in some cases there was a such a preponderance of evidence that it would have been criminal to allow the perpetrator to ever walk free again. In some cases, the lynching victim was proven to have committed so heinous a crime that he would have earned himself a legal execution.

The worst part of Wells theory, though, was how it excused pedophilia; the "white women” Wells said were the cause of all those lynchings were, too often, pre-pubescent girls no older than four or five years old at the time of their rape.

And there was Wells, shouting from the rooftops, "How dare you report your rape!"

#bhm #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackHistory #bhm #feb #february #american #blacklivesmatter #blackpeople

© 2018 Carrie Peterson


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