In the latest essay in our “Reading Racial Conflict” series, Megan Ming Francis draws attention to the extraordinary work of Ida B. In the late nineteenth century, Wells exposed the extent of racial violence in the United States by documenting lynching and then disseminating her findings through her books, journalism, and activism.
After six weeks of lagging revenue, the local white-owned railway company approached Wells to ask for her support to get blacks to ride the streetcars again.
In the following exchange with the railway company, Wells argues that nineteenth-century capitalism depended on racial violence: “‘Why, it was just six weeks ago that the lynching took place.’ [Wells said.] ‘But the streetcar company had nothing to do with the lynching,’ said one of the men.
This past summer, the frustration and rage that many black citizens felt was plastered across the news for weeks on end. However, much of the work has not properly interrogated the historical and contemporary dimensions of race and class.
And even less of this work has examined the contributions of black women.
It was in this same year that racial tensions would climax over competition between an established white grocery store and the opening, across the street, of the African American–owned People’s Grocery Company in the African American section of town.
The success of the People’s Grocery Company embittered a number of white residents who viewed its success as a threat to the racial power dynamics in Memphis.Lynching and mob violence were tactics of economic subordination, used to protect white economic power and to ensure a captive black labor force.Wells’ anti-lynching work began in 1892 while she was living in Memphis and editing , a newspaper where she discussed controversial issues of local and national significance, even when harshly criticizing the African American and white communities.Understanding lynching as a tool of state economic repression, Wells encouraged black residents of Memphis to leave, taking with them their labor and capital.The departure of many African American residents had a profound impact on the economics of Memphis.Wells’s writings reveal it was this volatile mix that fueled the increase of lynchings and mob violence.Despite threats on her life in Memphis due to her activism and reporting, Wells was convinced a lot of power lay in the media and moved to New York where she continued writing: this time for T.Thus, with the aid of the city and county authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to this rival Negro grocer as well as to his business.” For Wells, lynching was intricately linked to the protection of white economic power.It was an unofficial tool of the state to thwart black economic advancement.The lynchings created numerous unanswered questions for Wells since they were contrary to the accepted belief that lynchings were punishment for rape.But her three friends were not charged with that crime.