THE FATHER OF BLACK HISTORY
Black History Is No Mystery is deicated to the memory of Dr. Carter G. Woodson who is known as the Father of Black History. He is the guiding light in the preservation of the records of black people. The need for recording the suffering of blacks, as well as their achievements was recognized by Dr. Woodson in 1915. He devoted his life to bringing the accomplishments of blacks to the world’s attention, and started a trend that gathered momentum during the civil rights movement.
The beginning of the black historical movement was initiated in 1915 when Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The association began publishing the scholarly Journal of Negro History in 1916. The best known of Dr. Woodson’s 16 books is The Negro In Our History published in 1922. Many scholars consider it one of the best full length works on black history. Other books written by Dr. Woods are The Education Of The Negro Prior 1861, A Century Of Negro Migration, The History Of The Negro Church, The Mind Of The Negro As Reflected In Letters, Negro Orators And Their Orations, Free Negro Heads Of Families, and Negro Makers Of History.
Dr. Woodson was born in New Canton, Virginia. His parents were former slaves. He received a Ph.D in History from Harvard University and received the Spingarn Medal in 1926 from the NAACP.
BY ANN HERRICK
With the recent release of the movie Glory, a long neglected chapter of American history is being rediscovered. Glory chronicles the exploits of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, one of the earliest Black regiments in the Union army and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the wealthy young Bostonian who led them. The story of the Fifty-Fourth is a compelling one, made even more so by the swiftness with which it occurred. In March, 1863 the regiment was in training near Boston. Two months later, on May 28, the regiment marched proudly through cheering crowds in Boston, the first Black regiment from the North to go to war. By the morning of July 19,1863 Shaw and many of his men would lay dead on a sandy spit of land outside Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. Though their service was short, they made a difference. In their first battle, on July 15, they saved the Tenth Connecticut Regiment from certain destruction and their assault on Fort Wagner proved to the Union that Black soldiers were fully the equal of their White counterparts.
The regiment had many influential supporters, including Massachusetts Governor Andrew, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and other noted abolitionists of the day. These men traveled, lectured and wrote, urging Black men to join the regiment. The recruitment drive was so successful that a second regiment, the Fifty-Fifth, was filled as well. The Fifty-Fifth Regiment served with distinction throughout the war, most notably at Honey Hill, South Carolina. Among the soldiers in that regiment was James Monroe Trotter, the father of William Monroe Trotter.
The first Black regiment to serve in the Civil War was the First South Carolina Volunteers, formed in 1862. Recruited at the same time but mustered into the army shortly after the First South Carolina was the First Kansas Colored Regiment. In 1863 the Second South Carolina Volunteers, as well as the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth, began their service.
Though Shaw’s name is best-remembered, others, both in and out of the regiment deserve equal celebrity. In the crowd that day was a young Black woman named Mary Edmonia Lewis. She was so impressed with Shaw as he rode on his horse at the head of the regiment that she decided to sculpt a bust of the young colonel. Though she received little support in her artistic endeavors, she went ahead with the project. Later, Shaw’s sister commissioned Lewis to execute the bust in marble. Edmonia Lewis continued sculpting and became a respected artist both in the United States and Europe.
Two of the soldiers already had at least one admirer in the crowd. Charles and Lewis Douglass had joined the regiment as soon as they could and Lewis became the first unit’s first regimental sergeant major. It was their father, Frederick Douglass, who admired them from crowd that day as the regiment marched down Beacon Street.
Other states were raising Black regiments as well. The first Black regiment to serve in the Civil War was the First South Carolina Volunteers, formed in 1862. Recruited at the same time but mustered into the army shortly after the First South Carolina was the First Kansas Colored Regiment. In 1863 the Second South Carolina Volunteers, as well as the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth, began their service.
As Smalls served, he learned as much as he could and in May of 1862 he put his plan into action. One night when the White officers were away Smalls, who had the same figure and was about the same height as the captain of the Planter, put on the captain’s uniform and eased the steamer away from the wharf.
Of course, Blacks did not have to be in military service, or even freedmen, to be of great help to the Union. One of the cleverest coups for the Union was the brainchild of twenty-three year old Robert Smalls. A slave all his life, Smalls had been forced by the Confederacy to serve in their navy. Smalls was an excellent pilot and became wheelman of the steamer Planter. Had he been White he easily would have qualified to be the steamer’s captain, but as a slave, wheelman was as high a rank as he would ever get. As Smalls served, he learned as much as he could and in May of 1862 he put his plan into action. One night when the White officers were away Smalls, who had the same figure and was about the same height as the captain of the Planter, put on the captain’s uniform and eased the steamer away from the wharf. He and his co-conspirators slipped quietly out of Charleston Harbor, giving the sentries all the correct passwords and signals. He stopped to pick up his wife and children and then sailed to the nearest Union vessel and gave them the steamer plus important information about the coastal defenses. In recognition of his bravery Smalls was given command of the ship and remained its captain until the end of the war.
As entertaining as it is to read stories like this one and to see movies like Glory, there is nothing like reading the writing of people who actually lived these events. There are several good books and articles on the subject of Black soldiers in the Civil War. Here are just a few:
Lerone Bennett Jr., “Chronicles of Black Courage, Part V” in Ebony
Magazine, October, 1983. The dtory of Robert Smalls.
Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm, Negro Troops in the Union Army,
1861-1865.. An overview of the subject.
Otto Friedrich, “We Will Not Do Duty Any Longer for Seven Dollars Per
Month” in American Heritage, February, 1988. Injustice in the military.
Robert Ewell Greene, Black Defenders of America. Biographies of Black
servicemen, look up your ancestors!
James Hallas, “Forward, Fifty-Fourth!” in Yankee Magazine, July 1981. The
story of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment.
Susie King Taylor, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memories. Written by a freed Black woman who traveled with the First South Carolina Volunteers.
THE FIRST AFRICAN LEADER IN THE WEST
Born a slave in 1744 on the Breda plantation in St. Dominique (present day Haiti), Toussaint L’Ouverture rose to become the first independent Black leader in the New World. Under his guidance, Haiti became the second independent nation in the Americas in 1804, joining the United States which was first.
The Haitian revolution began with a courageous slave named Boukman, who led a community of 12,000 other slaves to revolt in Le Cap in 1791. It ended victoriously, with Toussaint, who not only conquered the former French and Spanish slave owners, but also handed the British army what was, up to that time, its worst defeat ever. Toussaint and the freed slaves not only conquered Napoleon in Haiti, but also caused his defeat in Europe as well. His military genius destroyed army after army of Napoleon’s forces, sent by Napoleon to re-enslave the Blacks of the island. By constantly draining the natural and financial resources of the former French colony, (the riches in the world at that time), Toussaint’s army weakened Napoleon’s position in France, giving the British the opportunity needed to destroy Napoleon’s continental forces.
Toussaint, the eldest of eight children, was small for his age, but soon developed his strength and skills through swimming, running, horseback riding, reading and thinking. His quiet, reserved manner, his cautious but confident nature, and his sharp tongue gave him command of every situation. His father, once a chieftain in Africa, taught him history and medicine. His mother taught him songs and told him stories of his ancestry. Pierre Baptiste, his godfather and a wise man, taught him French, Latin, and geometry and instilled in him a deep faith in Christianity. An avid reader of philosophy as well as history, Toussaint gained insight and power from his studies.
His last name, L’Ouverture (the opening), was a nickname the French governor of St. Dominique (Haiti) gave him after engaging in a battle with Toussaint. The governor’s statement, “That man finds an opening everywhere,” testified to Toussaint’s ability to break through enemy lines.
After hearing the declaration of the French revolutionary leaders for liberty, justice and equality for all French citizens, Haiti decided to fight its own war for independence in 1791, and Toussaint, cautious at first, soon became its leader and defeated the French slave owners. After The National Convention abolished slavery in 1793, he aided the French in their war against the Spanish and the British. In 1799, civil war broke out between the Blacks and the Mulattos. Toussaint, leading the Blacks in this internal struggle, soon won the war and became the island’s sole ruler.
When Napoleon sought to re-enslave the Blacks of Haiti in 1802, Toussaint began planning for war. He fought bravely and won many battles but was deceived by diplomacy to make peace. At peace the talks he was kidnapped and brought to France where he was imprisoned by Napoleon until his death on April 7th, 1803. Ironically, Napoleon would suffer a similar fate: capture and imprisonment until death. Under the leadership of Dessalines and Christophe, two protégés of Toussaint, Haiti maintained its independence, and was never again enslaved.
Character, training, action and a deep faith in God granted Toussaint command of the challenge of leading his people to freedom. The intellect, the curiosity, and the sense of community created through the sharing of history, coupled with the dream of freedom, justice and equality were the stamp and character of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian people.
To learn more about this brilliant leader, and the revolution he and others led, read one of the most comprehensive studies on this subject – The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by the Caribbean born scholar, C.L.R. James.
RALPH ELLISON’S INVISIBLE MAN
Ralph Elision’s Invisible Man explores the inconsistency between outward appearance and inner self- a reality which is both elusive and evanescent. The title itself suggests this fragility of appearance. From the narrator’s first encounter with Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, to his dealings later with the other principal character, Rhinehart, Invisible Man pokes at the flimsy nature of false appearances.
The way in which a person’s outward appearance works with his inner personality reflects his personal identity. As long as the inner and outer reality acknowledge each other, there is a consistency of appearance and true inner worth within the person. The narrator of Invisible Man learns to deny his inner worth and thus accepts various forms of deception of his identity.
Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the Negro College where the narrator first enters into the world of deception, offers us an example of a double personality. He is a master of deception and his success is due largely to his ability to manipulate whites. When the narrator naively shows Mr. Norton, a wealthy donor of the college, to the seamier sides of the neighboring community, he is bitterly upbraided by Dr. Bledsoe: “Why the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here?” Dr. Bledsoe recognizes the dishonesty of lying and misrepresentation, but he rationalizes his actions as a pragmatic approach to the racist assumptions of white attitudes.
He emphasizes that though whites financially assist his college, Bledsoe himself wields the power. When he says: “True they support it, but I control it,” his implication is that there are two kinds of power- the apparent or outward power and the real or inner power. Dr. Bledsoe sees his pandering as an effective way of assuring the school’s survival.
The narrator, whose “vague notions about dignity” leave him repulsed by Dr. Bledsoe’s brutal frankness, undergoes a transformation in the course of his subsequent experiences. Rhinehart, the chameleon-like-trickster who never appears but who’s presence is felt, represents the essence of the cold and calculating Dr. Bledsoe. Though Rhinehart is not physically present, his personas are effectively utilized by the narrator. The outward appearance of Rhinehart is a matter of dress; it is put on and taken off like a pair of eye glasses. The narrator’s adrenaline is charged by the thrill of putting on a false front. The effect of the glasses is magical. The “sinister light” provides a “strange wave of excitement.” The narrator realizes the power of his new image when he is first mis-identified by a woman in a “tight fitting summer dress.”
Rhinehart, baby, is that you? she said.
Rhinehart, I thought. So it works. She had her hand on my arm and
faster than I thought I heard myself answer, “Is that you baby?” and
waited with tense breath.
The narrator almost unconsciously encourages the mis-identification of him as Rhinehart and thus he effectively denies his true identity. He is drawn into this false identity. He continues to masquerade as Rhinehart’s other personalities, seemingly enjoying the schizophrenic rush of putting on false appearances. Thus he is seduced by the power which the absent Rhinehart has over others:
I was both depressed and fascinated. I wanted to know Rhinehart and
yet, I thought, I’m upset because I know I don’t have to know him,
that simply becoming aware of his existence, being mistaken for him,
is enough to convince me that Rhinehart is real. It couldn’t be, but it
The narrator sees the power of seeing and not seeing, of being seen and not seen as something not so. Image and appearance are the reality which his world perceives. Appearance is substance.
The opening chapters reveals the narrator’s first glimmerings of realization. This realization is fully apprehended by the narrator as he perceives Rhinehart as the consummate man capable of dealing with a world of deception. His first encounter with this kind of deception was Dr. Bledsoe who took the narrator to task for not having grounded himself in the ways of the world. Dr. Bledsoe frankly explains the skills of deception which he feels are indispensable for a Black man’s survival in a white world. The narrator seems to have an innate sense of duty and honor, an idealistic sense of honesty and character which conflicts with the deception necessary to succeed like a Dr. Bledsoe or a Rhinehart. It is this conflict which prompts the narrator to ask, “What is real anyway?”
The narrator comes to understands that denying his moral sense of duty leads to masking his true identity. His search for identity winds up at the beginning. His path has taken him full circle as he realizes the profundity of Dr. Bledsoe’s commentary.
The world has not changed for him in the end only the bitterness of many of his experiences. The Invisible Man’s process of seeing through the many facades he encounters only reveals for him the flimsy character of appearances. The narrator realizes that the deceptive Bledsoe is a universal kind, a paradigm fully expressed in the later character of Rhinehart.
REGGIE HUDLIN’S HOUSE PARTY
By Janis Lowe
Q: When did you become interested in film making?
A: My brother is a film maker. When I was a kid, he would take me to a lot of foreign films as well as American independent and art films. So I started
thinking about movies I wanted to make. When he would come home from college, I would tell him my ideas. So, one time he came home for Christmas break and gave me a diary. He said “Don’t tell me about your ideas
anymore. Write them down.” That’s when I first started writing scripts.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional film maker?
A: I didn’t make a conscious decision until I was graduating from high school and it was time for me to pick a college. Of course when you pick a college, you have to decide what you want to study. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do.
Q: Where did you attend college and what did you study?
A: I went to Harvard. There was a major there called Visual and Environmental Studies which is sort of an umbrella term for anything
arts related. While my main area of concentration was film, I also studied
photography, graphic arts and architecture.
Q: How should an aspiring film maker go about educating herself or himself?
A: It’s actually fairly easy to learn how to make a film. You can learn by working with other film makers or going to film school. The important thing is to learn things to make movies about. You must be a good storyteller. You must have a grasp of politics, philosophy and psychology. That’s why I chose Harvard. With a good all-around education, I felt I could make films people would want to watch. Most people tend to overlook what you’re saying (with a film). which is more important than how you say it.
Q: Can you tell me about your brother and the Black Film Foundation?
A: When my brother was a student at Yale, he made a film that people loved wherever he showed it. But when he took the film to a distributor, he would be told that there was no market for it. He knew otherwise. He got together
with some friends–people he went to college with, and formed a distribution cooperative for film makers. Ten years later, the Black Film Foundation is the largest distributor of Black independent films. They recently celebrated their 10th anniversary. They were the fiscal agent for Spike Lee’s film, She’s Gotta Have It. They’ve really played a crucial role in the contemporary success of Black independent film.
Q: The Black independent film tradition is at least 70 years old. Why is this not common knowledge?
A: Much information about Blacks being empowered is repressed. It is important that Blacks continue to make films. A lot of people mistakenly
believe that a movie is Black if a Black appears in the film. The true definition of a Black film is when a Black person is the creative influence behind the camera. If the writer, the director, and the producer are Black, then it is a Black film. Black subject matter does not qualify a film as Black.
Q: You mentioned that the Black Film Foundation was fiscal agent for She’s Gotta Have It. Is Spike Lee involved with the foundation in any other way?
A: He’s very supportive of the organization, financially. He’s the largest individual contributor. The foundation hosted the premier of She’s Gotta
Have It, and has given him an award for helping to break down barriers in the film industry.
Q: Several Black films made in the seventies were financed by independent
groups of Black business people. Do you foresee an increase in such cooperative efforts?
A: Those kinds of efforts are very difficult to put together. Blacks have to be willing to put out a few thousand dollars and possibly lose that. Many Blacks don’t have those kinds of resources. However, I think the success of
She’s Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle have encouraged people to attempt low budget pictures and I hope more will be successful.
Q: Do you feel Blacks have the economic power to control their media image?
A: Yes, if Blacks employ other Blacks whenever possible, the first battle is won. If a Black musician has a Black manager, hires a Black company to do the music video, goes to a Black studio to record his album, insists upon a Black agent, we could take over the entertainment industry. Blacks have the number one show on television, the number one movie star, and the number one recording star. If we put Black nationalism to work within the entertainment community, we could control a sizable chunk of one of America’s largest industries.
Q: Do Black film makers have a responsibility to the Black community?
A: All of the Black film makers I know went into film making because they wanted to make a social statement. Considering the amount of money it costs to make a film, I don’t think you can spend that much money, get that much of people’s time and attention and not say anything.
Q: Tell me about your film, House Party?
A: It began as my thesis at Harvard in 1983. When I was a kid writing scripts, I promised myself that I would one day capture my various mis-adventures on film. I said to myself, “This might be the only film I ever make so I better keep my promise.” So, I made the short version of House Party which was twenty minutes long and very successful. I entered the film in a lot of film festivals . It played a lot on the short film circuit. After the success of She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood studios were looking for Black film makers. New Line Cinema had heard about me and wanted to see some scripts. I sent them two and they decided to produce House Party as a feature film.
Q: Is anyone from the original cast in it?
A: I tried to but most of them were not living at the same address after six years. I hope to work with some of the original cast when other projects come up.
Q: What did you have to do to get the original House Party seen by people who would possibly produce it?
A: I sent copies of the video tape around to people. I also had the film distributed by the Black Film Foundation. Through the Foundation and word-of-mouth, people became aware of the movie. Also, when Spike Lee
became successful and was deluged with offers, he would put in a good word for me. Some opportunities came that way.
Q: Will young Black men find positive role models for themselves in your work?
A: I think so. If there’s a central message at the heart of the film, it’s about birth control. We try not to moralize. We respect their intelligence as audience. When I was a kid I hated to be preached to so I try not to preach to kids. At the same time, if there’s a crucial issue in America today, its babies making babies. That you can’t blame on the White man. It is our special organs that are doing that. If we put ourselves in check, that’s a huge problem that can be eliminated.
Q: One of the #1 problems among Black youths in our society is lack of self-esteem. How can we best build self-esteem in our young people?
A: The problem is kids’ lack of knowledge of Black history. When I was coming up, I never felt inferior. I knew everyone in my family was intelligent and I knew the achievements of Black people as a whole. I never felt that I could not do something because I was Black.
Q: Who helped to instill this positive attitude in you?
A: There were many influences but the number one influence was my family.
Q: Is there any particular school of philosophy or thought that encouraged you?
A: The attitude of “do for self”. No one owes you anything. The system may be corrupt but you don’t hold your hand out and say, “you owe me something”.
You take what you deserve.
Q: Is there anything that has hurt or hindered you in the process of becoming a successful film maker?
A: The film industry, like most other industries, is prejudiced. Because it is a culturally based industry, it is even more biased. Success in the industry is based on aesthetics, what is considered funny and entertaining. I go to Hollywood studios and I don’t even see Black secretaries or janitorial staff. That is very disheartening.
Q: Is your staff at House Party a Black staff or an integrated one?
A: The industry standard is five percent Black participation. We have sixty-five percent Black participation.
Q: How can we best build institutions such as banks, theaters, cultural centers, social and economic networks that will help African Americans enter the ranks of the financially successful?
A: Its a two fold thing. On one hand successful Black institutions are usually based around someone who says, “the buck stops here.” Someone willing to take ultimate responsibility. But of course, one person can’t do it alone. For us to build institutions, we have to have people who are willing to sacrifice. This is difficult for us to do on a day-to-day basis because Blacks often have a hard time in service positions. We don’t like working for anybody. We remember when we weren’t benefiting from the fruits of our own labor. However, we can’t afford that mentality now that we’re doing for ourselves. I think the first step is to take the attitude that this is ours and we have to work hard, even if we work for someone else. We have to work as if we owned it. The second step is the successful transition of power. Lots of times, we based an organization or a movement around a charismatic, intelligent leader. When that figure retires or is killed–that’s it. Then cut off the head and the body dies. We need to build succession.
THE POLITICAL AWAKENING OF IDA B. WELLS
by Paul Lee
On the morning of February 13, 1893, a tiny, coffee-colored former school teacher appeared before the Boston Monday Lecture series at Tremont Temple. “It was…my first opportunity to address a white audience,” she later recalled in her autobiography. The series, organized by Joseph Cook, the famous preacher and social reformer, served as a platform for the presentation and discussion of the great social questions of the day. On this occasion, however, the young journalist-she was just a few months shy of her thirty first birthday-chose to speak of herself. Normally loathe to do so (her most intimated thoughts and feelings were usually confided to her diary), she had nevertheless begun to see the broader implications of the tragedies she had suffered and witnessed nearly a year before- the murder of friends which had gone unpunished; the disillusionment and terror which engulfed her community; the destruction of her newspaper when she dared to challenge the excuse given for such murders; and finally, her forced exile from her beloved home.
She had come to see these terrible events as symptoms of an escalating national epidemic that threatened much more than her person and the security of one community-it threatened the very freedom of a people only one generation removed from enslavement. Her talk, which she titled “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” marked a critical stage in the campaign she would lead and which would thence-forth be inseparably linked with her name, Ida B. Wells.
In 1883, she sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for damages after being forcibly ejected from a first-class coach that had been recently reserved for White ladies. (Their Black maids and nurses, however, were exempted from this rule.) The local courts decided in her favor, but in 1887 their verdict was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Born a slave in Holly Springs. Mississippi on July 16, 1862, three years before the end of the Civil War, Ida Bell Wells was raised in the changed world of its wake in which, for the first time, equality was assumed as a fact. Her teachers at Shaw University (later Rust College), white Methodist missionaries, imbued their charges with the tenets of Christian egalitarianism by their teachings and their practice; and Northern carpetbaggers joined the freedmen in building the democratic institutions of the new Reconstruction government, But these exciting times came to an abrupt end for her in 1878 when both parents and a baby brother were consumed by a raging epidemic of yellow fever. Refusing to allow her family to split up, 16 year old Ida assumed responsibility for her five younger siblings by securing a job as a country school teacher. In search of greater security, she moved about 1880 to nearby Memphis, then fast emerging as a commercial hub and cultural center of the New South, taught in its segregated country and city schools, and gained entrance into the social life of its striving Black middle class.
In 1883, she sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for damages after being forcibly ejected from a first-class coach that had been recently reserved for White ladies. (Their Black maids and nurses, however, were exempted from this rule.) The local courts decided in her favor, but in 1887 their verdict was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. By this time, however, she had discovered what she later called her “first and it might be said, my only love”–journalism.
Writing under the pen name “Iola,” her earliest contributions-reports of local news, cultural reviews, and serious minded sermons on the virtues of piety, industry and economy-appeared in the local Black Baptist weeklies, and on occasion, the White dailies printed her letters to the editor. As her interests grew and her writing matured, her articles were picked up by many of the leading race “exchanges” throughout the nation, which numbered over two hundred in the 1880s. By 1889, she was acclaimed by her peers as the “Princess of the Press,” and in June of that year achieved a long sought after ambition by becoming part owner and editor of her own paper, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (later simply Free Speech)
But a virulent racist reaction was also on the rise during this period. In 1877, the promising reforms of the Reconstruction were betrayed by a political compromise between victor and vanquished which, by the 1880s and early 1890s, left African-Americans all but defenseless, especially but not exclusively, in the South. Legal and pseudo-legal barriers of discrimination were being erected and breaches in the developing new order were being increasingly fortified by the extra-legal sanctions of lynch law and mobocracy.
It was in this climate that an event occurred in 1892 that, as Ida B. Wells recounted in her autobiography story that she was invited to recite for the Boston Monday Lecture. The extracts that follow are reprinted from the text of her talk as printed in Our Day, edited by Joseph Cook, in May 1893. The editor has made several silent factual corrections.
“I am before the American people to-day through no inclination of my own, but because of a deep-seated conviction that the country at large does not know the extent to which lynch law prevails in parts of the conditions which force into exile those who speak the truth.
The race problem or Negro question, as it has been called, has been omni-present and all-pervading since long before the Afro-American was raised from the degradation of the slave to the dignity of the citizen. It is the Banquo’s ghost of politics, religion, and sociology. Times without number the race has been indicted for ignorance, immorality and general worthlessness–declared guilty and executed by its self-constituted judges. The operations of law do not dispose of Negroes fast enough, and lynching bees have become the favorite pastime of the South. As excuse for the same, a new cry, as false as it is foul, is raised in an effort to blast race character, a cry that has proclaimed to the world that virtue and innocence are violated by Afro-Americans who must be killed like wild beasts to protect womanhood and childhood.
Born and reared in the South, I had never expected to live elsewhere. Until this past year I was one among those who believed the condition of the masses gave large excuse for the humiliations and proscriptions under which we labored; that when wealth, education and character became more general among us–the cause being removed–the effect would cease, and justice be accorded to all alike. I shared the general belief that good newspapers entering regularly the homes of our people in every state could do more to bring about this result than any agency. And so, three years ago last June, I became editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech. As editor, I had occasion to criticize the city School Board’s employment of inefficient teachers and poor school-buildings for Afro-American children and at the close of that school-term one year ago, was not re-elected to a position I had held in the city schools for seven years. Accepting the decision of the Board of Education, I set out to make a race newspaper pay.
I became advertising agent, solicitor, as well as editor, and was continually on the go. Wherever I went among the people, I gave them my honest conviction that maintenance of character, money getting and education would finally solve our problem and that it depended on us to say how soon this would be brought about. This sentiment bore good fruit in Memphis. We had nice homes, representatives in almost every branch of business and profession, and refined society. There had been lynching and brutal outrages of all sorts in our own state and those adjoining us, but we had confidence and pride in our city and the majesty of its laws. So far in advance of other Southern cities was ours, we were content to endure the evils we had, to labor and to wait.
But there was a rude awakening. On the morning of March 9, the bodies of three of our best young men were found in an old field horribly shot to pieces. These young men had owned and operated the People’s Grocery, situated at what was known as the Curve–a suburb made up almost entirely of colored people–Thomas Moss, one of the oldest letter-carriers in the city, was president of the company, Calvin McDowell was manager and Will Stewart was a clerk. The young men were well known and popular and their business flourished, and that of Barrett, a White grocer who kept store there before the ‘People’s Grocery’ was established, went down. One day an officer came to the ‘People’s Grocery’ and inquired for a colored man who lived in the neighborhood. Barrett was with him and McDowell said he knew nothing, Barratt, not the officer, then accused McDowell of harboring the man, amd McDowell gave the lie. Barrett drew his pistol and struck McDowell with it; thereupon McDowell took Barrett’s pistol from him and gave him a good thrashing. Barrett then threatened (to use his own words) that he was going to clean out the whole store. Knowing how anxious he was to destroy their business, these young men accordingly armed several of their friends, not to assail, but to resist the threatened Saturday night attack.
When they saw Barrett enter the front door and a half dozen men at the rear door at 11 o’clock that night, they supposed the attack was on and immediately fired into the crowd, wounding three men. These men, dressed in citizen’s clothes, turned out to be deputies. When these men found they had fired upon officers of the law, they threw away their firearms and submitted to Barrette, confident they should establish their innocence of intent to fire upon officers of the law.
No communication was to be had with friends any of the three days these men were in jail; bail was refused and Thomas Moss was not allowed to eat the food his wife prepared for him. The judge is reported to have said, “Any one can see them after three days.” They were seen after three days, but they were no longer able to respond to the greeting of friends. On Tuesday the papers that had made much of the sufferings of the wounded deputies, and promised it would go hard with those who did the shooting, if they died, announced that the officers were all out of danger, and would recover. The friends of the prisoners breathed more easily. They felt that as the officers would not die, there was no danger that in the heat of passion the prisoners would meet violent death at the hands of the mob.
Besides, we had such confidence in the Law. But the law did not provide capital punishment for shooting which did not kill. So the mob did what the law could not be made to do, as a lesson to the Afro-American that he must not shoot a white man–no matter what the provocation. The same night the announcement was made that the officers would get well, the mob went to the jail between two and three o’clock in the morning dragged out these young men, hatless and shoeless, put them on the yard engine of the railroad that was in waiting just behind the jail, carried them a mile north of city limits and horribly shot them to death while the locomotive at a given signal let off steam and blew the whistle to deaden the sound of the firing.
“It was done by unknown men, “said the jury, yet the Appeal-Avalanche, which goes to press at 3 a.m., had a two–column account of the lynching. The papers also told how McDowell got hold of the guns of the mob, and as his grip could not be loosened, his hand was shattered with a pistol ball and all the lower part of his face was torn away.
“It was done by unknown parties,” said the jury, yet the papers told how Tom Moss begged for his life, for the sake of his wife, his little daughter and his unborn infant. They also told us that his last words were “If you will kill us, turn our faces to the West.”
I have no power to describe the feeling of horror that possessed every member of the race in Memphis when the truth dawned upon us that the protection of the law that we had so long enjoyed was no longer ours. The power of the state, county and city, the civil authorities and the strong arm of the military power were all on the side of the mob and of lawlessness. Few of our men possessed firearms, our only [military] company’s guns were confiscated, and the only White man who would sell a colored man a gun, was himself jailed, and his store closed. It was our first object lesson in the doctrine of white supremacy; and illustration of the South’s cardinal principle that no matter what the attainments, character or standing of an Afro-American, the laws of the South will not protect him against a White man.
There was only one thing we could do, and a great determination seized upon the people to follow the advice of the martyred Moss, and “Turn our faces to the West.” The Free Speech supported by our ministers and leading business men advised the people to leave a community whose laws did not protect them. Hundreds left on foot to walk four hundred miles between Memphis and Oklahoma. In two months, six thousand persons had left the city and every branch of business began to feel this silent resentment. There were a number of business failures and blocks of houses were for rent. The superintendent and treasurer of the street railway company called at the office of the Free Speech, to have us urge the colored people to ride again on the street cars.
There was only one thing we could do, and a great determination seized upon the people to follow the advice of the martyred Moss, and “turn our faces to the West.” The Free Speech supported by our ministers and leading business men advised the people to leave a community whose laws did not protect them. Hundreds left on foot to walk four hundred miles between Memphis and Oklahoma. In two months, six thousand persons had left the city and every branch of business began to feel this silent resentment. There were a number of business failures and blocks of houses were for rent. The superintendent and treasurer of the street railway company called at the office of the Free Speech, to have us urge the colored people to ride again on the street cars.
To restore the equilibrium and put a stop to the great financial loss, the next move was to get rid of the Free Speech–the disturbing element which kept the waters troubled; which would not let the people forget. In casting about for an excuse, the mob found it in the following editorial that appeared in the Memphis Free Speech–May 21, 1892:
Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of 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 in New Orleans–on the same old racket, the new alarm about raping white women;and three at Clarksville, Ga., for killing a white man. the same program of hanging, the 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 over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.
Commenting on this, The Daily Commercial of Wednesday following said:
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. there are some things that the southern whites. But we have had enough of it. there are something s that the southern white man will not tolerate, and the obscene intimations of the fore going have brought the writer to the very outermost limit of public patience. We hope we have said enough.
The Evening Scimitar of the same day copied this leading editorial and added this comment:
Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue. 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 Streets, Brand him in the fore head with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.
I had written that editorial with other matter for the week’s paper before leaving home the Friday previously for the General Conference of the A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia. Thursday, May 26, at 3 p.m., I landed in New York City and there learned from the papers that my business manager had been driven away and the paper suspended. Telegraphing for news, I received telegrams and letters in return informing me that the trains were being watched, that I was to be dumped into the river and beaten, if not killed; it had been learned that I wrote the editorial and I was to be hanged in front of the court-house and my face bled if I returned, and I was implored by friends to remain away. The creditors attacked the office in the meantime and the outfit was sold without more ado, thus destroying effectually that which it had taken years to build.
I have been censured for writing that editorial, but when I think of the five men who were lynched that week for assault on white women and that not a week passes but some poor soul is violently ushered into eternity on this trumped-up charge, knowing the many things I do, seeing that the whole race in the South was injured in the estimation of the world because of these false reports, I could no longer hold my peace, and I feel, yes, I am sure, that if it had to be done over again (provided no one else was the Loser save myself) I would do and say the very same again.
Following her exile from Memphis, Wells settled in New York City and was offered a regular column in The New York Age, the leading race paper, which was published and edited by her old friend, the brilliant T. Thomas Fortune, who was generally considered to be the “dean” of Black journalists.
Wells toured the British Isles, effectively internationalizing the question. She left behind her the London Anti-Lynching Committee to carry on the practical work.
On June 25, 1892, the Age devoted its entire front page to a meticulously documented expose of lynching by Wells, who signed the article simply “EXILED.” She frontally challenged the widespread justification for lynching, which was accepted by many blacks as well as Whites–namely, that the South was “defending the honor of its women” against the “brutal lust” of Black Fiends. Using statistics compiled by the conservative Chicago Daily Tribune, she pointed out the fact that “only one third of the 728 victims to mobs” who were lynched during the preceding nine years “have been charged with rape, to say nothing of those…who were innocent of the charge.” Moreover, lynch “law,” by its very nature, denied the accused of the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, thereby subverting the rule of law by surrendering its prerogatives to the will of the mob.
At first, her appeals were directed at the “Afro-American” appears (she preferred the term to “Negro”) because, as she pointed out in Southern Horrors, a revision of her Age article published as a pamphlet in late 1892, they were “the only ones that will print the truth” about lynching. But she soon became convinced that the aid of influential Northern whites would be needed as well. In her autobiography, she recalled, perhaps with a mixture of satisfaction and frustration, that following her Monday Lecture appearance, “The Boston Transcript and Advertiser gave the first notices and report of my story of any White northern papers.” This, too, was considered insufficient, and in 1893 and 1894, Wells toured the British Isles, effectively internationalizing the question. She left behind her the London Anti-lynching committee to carry on the practical work. In 1895, she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a lawyer, and settled in Chicago.
At the close of the century and the beginning of the next, Wells channeled her considerable energy into a variety of movements and causes–the Black women’s club movement, Women’s Suffrage, the fight against segregated schools, settlement house work to aid Southern migrants, the election of African Americans to public office–an inexhaustive list. She participated in the founding of two national civil rights organizations–the revived National Afro-American council in 1898 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909–and actively supported two more militant groups–William Monroe Trotter’s National Equal Rights League and Marcus Garver’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. And, during all this, she was able to maintain what her friend Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist leader, called the “divided duty” of marriage and motherhood.
Because of her militancy, outspokenness, and refusal to compromise on what she understood to be matters of principle, she was more often than not a ‘lonely warrior,’ as historian Thomas C. Holt has called her. Though she anticipated many, if not most political and social strategies that were employed in the first quarter of the 20 th century, and even later, she was given little or no credit by her contemporaries and spiritual successors. About 1928, she sought to redress this omission, and the “lack of authentic race history of Reconstruction times” written by African Americans, by writing her autobiography. It remained uncompleted when she died at the age of sixty-nine on March 25, 1931, but was finally published in 1970. Edited by her daughter, Alefreda Duster, it was fittingly titled Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.
Duster, Alfreda M., ed. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.
Giddings, Paula. “Woman Warrior: Ida B. Wells, Crusader-Journalist.” Essence Feb. 1988: 75+.
Holt, Thomas C. “The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Struggle for Black Leadership.” In John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1982), 39-61.
Sterling, Dorothy. Black Foremothers: Three Lives. Old Westbury, Ny: The Feminist Press, 1979.
Tucker, David M. “Miss Ida B. Wells and Memphis Lynching.” Phylon 32 (1971): 112-22.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. On Lynching. New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1969. (Reprints three of her pamphlets: Southern Horrors , A Red Record , and Mob Rule In New Orleans .)
Wells, Ida B. “lynch Law In All Its Phases.” Our Day: A Record and Review of Current Reform 11 (May 1893): 333-47.
Paul Lee is a professional researcher based in Highland Par, Michigan. He served as chief researchist for the film ” Ida B. Wells–A Passion for Justice,” produced by William Greaves and broadcast on the PBS series The American Experience, December 19, 1989. He is presently working on a collection, “Iola”: The Writings and Speeches of Ida B. Wells, 1884-1894.