When Ida B. Wells Took on Lynching, Threats Forced Her to Leave Memphis

Ida B. Wells

By Becky Little | History

Journalist Ida B. Wells was already out of town when she realized that an editorial she’d written had caused a riot. In 1892, Wells had left Memphis to attend a conference in Philadelphia, when the office of the newspaper she co-owned was destroyed and her co-editor was run out of town.

“As a result of the editorial, Memphis has just exploded,” says Paula J. Giddings, a professor emerita of Africana studies at Smith College and author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions. “And she is threatened with lynching, herself, if she comes back to Memphis.”

The editorial was about lynching, a form of terrorism with which Wells was painfully familiar. On March 9, a white mob had murdered her friend Thomas Moss and his business partners, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell, because their People’s Grocery was taking business from a white man’s neighborhood store.

By this time, Wells was already a journalist and minor celebrity. Several years before, a train conductor had kicked her out of the first-class ladies’ car after she refused to move to a segregated carriage. She sued the railroad for segregating its cars, won $500 in a local court (whose ruling the Supreme Court later overturned) and began writing newspaper columns about her lawsuit.

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