By Christina Armeni
The Howard Center For Investigative Journalism
Ida B. Wells-Barnett had a special connection to Thomas Moss, and didn’t understand how he could have done what they said he had.
“Everybody in town knew and loved Tommie,” Wells-Barnett wrote in her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice.” “An exemplary young man, he was married and the father of one little girl, whose godmother I was.”
It was March 1892, and a mob had lynched Moss and two other Black men just outside Memphis because, word had it, they had been part of a conspiracy to carry out wholesale attacks on the city’s white residents.
Wells-Barnett was “shocked to find a narrative about the lynching coming out of white Memphis like they had somehow deserved it because she knew very well, as did everyone in Black Memphis, that these were very respectable, hard-working men,” University of Pennsylvania historian Mia Bay, author of “To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells,” said in an interview.
Moss’s day job was as a postman; after hours, he headed up The People’s Grocery, a Black-owned cooperative in a mixed-race community just outside the city that had become a competitor to the established white-owned grocery.
As it turned out, the owner of the White outlet had instigated days of conflicts between local law enforcement officials and Black community men that resulted in Moss and the two others being arrested, dragged from jail and shot to death in a railroad yard.
Wells-Barnett lost a friend; others lost more, Smith College professor Paula J. Giddings wrote in “Ida: A Sword Among Lions,” because at the time, Memphis “had emerged as the fifth- largest wholesale grocery market in the country.”
The Moss-led grocery, launched only three years before, had become “an instant success. The grocery not only brought capital to the Black Memphians in the community, but also a sense of pride,” Damon Mitchell reported in a 2018 article on the lynching for JStor Daily, a scholarly research website.
“The creditors had the place closed a few days later and what remained of the stock was sold at an auction,” Mitchell wrote, and the white grocery owner bought most of what was left of the formerly Black-owned store, having “successfully gotten rid of the black competitor he grew to resent.”
Wells-Barnett had also been reporting and writing on what she considered another falsehood surrounding lynching—that many Black men were lynched because they had raped white women.
Three months after the People’s Grocery murders, she wrote a fateful editorial in The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the newspaper she edited and partly owned: “Nobody in this section believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women.”
“If Southern men are not careful,” she seemed to warn, “a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
A local white-owned newspaper, The Daily Commercial, attacked.
“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’ve had enough of it,” it editorialized.
Death threats followed, fast and furious. Four days later, a mob ransacked the office of The Free Speech and Headlight and destroyed the building that housed it. Creditors took possession of any assets left. Wells-Barnett, who was out of town at the time, never came back to Memphis.
She was running away from that city, but running toward a greater calling that also was personal. “They had me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth,” she wrote in “Crusade for Justice.” “I felt that I owed it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth.”
The investigative reporter in her took Wells-Barnett to Chicago. She continued her quest to debunk the big lie about lynching and rape. In 1895, she published a seminal work, “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States.”
It was what journalists today could describe as a data-based narrative that she boasted rested on undisputed truths from the Chicago Tribune, a white-owned newspaper.
“The purpose of the pages which follow shall be to give the record which has been made, not by colored men, but that which is the result of compilations made by white men, of reports sent over the civilized world by white men in the South,” she wrote. “Out of their own mouths shall the murderers be condemned.”
The facts were clear: Of 134 Black men reported lynched in 1894, only about one-third, 43, were accused of rape, alleged rape or attempted rape. One of the 43 was lynched for allegedly “writing letters to a white woman,” Wells-Barnett reported, and another for “asking a white woman to marry.”
This was a story, she said, that had to be told.
“If the Southern people in defense of their lawlessness, would tell the truth and admit that colored men and women are lynched for almost any offense, from murder to a misdemeanor, there would not now be the necessity for this defense.”
“But when they intentionally, maliciously and constantly belie the record and bolster up these falsehoods by the words of legislators, preachers, governor and bishops, then the Negro must give to the world his side of the awful story.”
The abolitionist author and acclaimed orator Frederick Douglass praised her findings. “I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison,” he wrote in a foreword to the book. “You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity, and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.
“Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured,” Douglass wrote.
Just two years later, history repeated itself in Wilmington, North Carolina, with even worse consequences than in Memphis.
A Georgia white suffragist, Rebecca Latimer Felton, claimed in an August 1897 speech that Black rapists were the major threat to white women, and criticized white men for not doing enough on the women’s behalf.
“When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue—if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts—then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.”
Alexander Manly, an owner and editor of Wilmington’s Daily Record, then believed to be the nation’s only Black-owned daily, countered her words, which had been reprinted in one of the city’s white-owned newspapers.
“The woman makes a strong plea for womanhood and if the alleged crimes or rape were half so frequent as is oftentimes reported, her plea would be worthy of consideration,” Manly wrote. He suggested that the interracial sexual encounters were consensual, as Wells-Barnett had implied, and that the bigger problem was white men preying upon Black women.
“You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites. In fact you cry aloud for the virtues of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours,” Manly wrote. “Don’t think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours. You sow the seed—the harvest will come in due time.”
Within a week, The Daily Record’s printing presses were destroyed, its office burned to the ground and its owners, Manly and his brother, had fled the city.
White jealousy of Black economic success, part of the underpinning of the turmoil that led to the lynching of Thomas Moss and the others in Memphis, had also been a factor in Wilmington, which at the time was the largest city in North Carolina.
It was a majority-Black town, with nearly every eating establishment and barber shop in the city owned by African Americans, who also were well-established as Wilmington’s resident doctors, lawyers and architects; its jewelers, tailors and watchmakers.
During rioting that followed the dueling editorials and burning of the newspaper office, white mobs murdered dozens of Black people and dumped their bodies in the Cape Fear River. They also rounded up well-off Black folks and their white political allies and forced them out of the city.
They took over Wilmington’s government and issued their own “White Declaration of Independence.” The “1898 Wilmington Race Riot” is generally referred to as the only coup d’etat in the history of the United States.
Thomas Moss’s dying words, it’s been reported, were, “Tell my people to go West, there is no justice for them here.” Wells-Barnett invoked that advice, and some 6,000 subsequently left Memphis.
Yet barely a generation after Moss’s death, and only 400 miles west, white mobs, acting on myths of a Black man’s assault on a white woman, would kill hundreds of Black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while destroying that city’s embodiment of African American economic success: the Black Wall Street.
Walter F. White, himself an investigative reporter who later became executive director of the NAACP, built upon Wells-Barnett’s work and wrote “Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch,” which further argued that lynching was tied as much to economic issues as to interracial sex, and perhaps more so.
Wells-Barnett, a co-founder of the NAACP, was at times at odds with others in the association, including White, said Kenneth Robert Janken, a professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Her work was focused on building a movement from the bottom up. It was important to her that she worked to help people articulate their demands, and help them organize to achieve it,” Janken said in an interview.
By contrast, White’s “approach to leadership was to build a nationwide organization that was bureaucratic in nature … having a nationwide bureaucracy that could respond, and could lobby and could litigate,” said Janken, who wrote the introduction to the 2001 edition of White’s book.
Yet White’s book upheld Wells-Barnett’s explanation of the fundamental reason for the lynching of her grocer friend. “It just violated all sorts of customs, all sorts of Jim Crow customs,” Janken said. That Moss was more successful “challenged the notion of African American inferiority.”
In 1950, nearly two decades after Wells-Barnett’s death, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize. Seventy years later, Wells-Barnett was honored with a Pulitzer Special Citation “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
The posthumous award was an affirmation of what some say is Wells-Barnett’s place in newspaper history.
“She’s one of the matriarchs of investigative journalism, period,” said Topher Sanders, a reporter for the investigative news organization ProPublica. “Not a Black matriarch of investigative journalism, not a Black matriarch of Black investigative journalism, but a matriarch of investigative journalism. She was doing the kind of work that set the agenda and also exposed wrongdoing and shined light on the truth.”
Wells-Barnett’s work challenged the accuracy of the white-owned press, which newspapers like Freedom’s Journal and The North Star had proclaimed as central to the mission of the Black press in an era of slavery and racial injustice, and it challenges currently as well, said Sanders, a co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Anytime you are going [to state] in the most forthright and boldest voices that the narrative you just read in the big white paper is inaccurate, it is wrong, it is a lie, this is not what happened, and that is not why this gentleman, this woman, this group of people were lynched yesterday—that’s what a lot of the black press did [to] set the record straight,” he said.
“If we’re teaching young journalists how to expose the city government that they cover for abuses in certain parts of the community that otherwise wouldn’t have been uncovered, that’s the work, that’s in line with what Ida B. Wells’s work was and the vision she would have for any journalist.”