In the years 1893 and 1894 pioneering African American investigative journalist and early civil rights leader Ida Bell Wells (1862-1931) visited Britain on a series of speaking tours.
Ida B. Wells, born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, had made it her mission to raise awareness of the brutal ramifications of the lynch law in the Southern States of America. This special blog will explore how Wells was received in Britain, and how the press of the time reported on her quest to raise awareness of the horrors of lynching being enacted at that time.
Newspapers of the past contain terms and phrases relating to race that are outmoded, and are unacceptable today. It is not our intention to cause offense through their replication, only to accurately represent how Ida B. Wells’s speaking tour was reported on in the British press at the time.
Monday Evening in the Ballroom
Lynch Law in the United States – Miss Ida B. Wells – An American Negro Lady, will deliver an ADDRESS on this subject on MONDAY EVENING in the BALLROOM, MUSIC HALL.
Supporting Wells would be Miss Catherine Impey (member of the Society of Friends), and in the chair Mrs Isabella Fyvie Mayo, who was a reforming poet and suffragist. It was Impey and Mayo who had invited Ida B. Wells to Britain to raise awareness of the lynching law, Impey having heard Wells speak previously in America.
After her talk in Aberdeen, Ida B. Wells then travelled to Edinburgh to deliver another lecture on the lynch law. The St. Andrews Citizen, 6 May 1893, describes how Wells spoke ‘under the auspices of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Emancipation Society,’ and there was a ‘good attendance’ at her talk.
The St. Andrews Citizen goes on to illustrate the nature of Wells’s lecture, as she raised awareness of the ‘social degradation and exclusion’ of the Black population in the American South:
Miss Wells described how the troubles of the coloured people in the South did not end, as was fondly anticipated, at the close of the Civil War, but that they were still bitterly oppressed by their old masters. It was stated by one writer that during the reconstruction period more negroes were killed than during the war itself.
She went on to describe the introduction of the ‘separate car law,’ which saw Black rail passengers separated from white. But it was the lynch law that Wells wanted to pay particular attention to; it was her resistance to this, and the threat of lynching to herself, that had driven her from her home and workplace in Memphis, Tennessee.
Wells told her audience in Edinburgh how:
The reports of the lynching cases, she said, were always biased by the perpetrators or their friends so as to represent the negro victims as desperate and immoral characters, and the lynchers of the South had grown bolder and bolder as the time went on.
This was Wells’s stand: that lynching was being used as a method to oppress the African American population of the South, to systematically impede the political, economic and social progress of African American people after Reconstruction. And in Britain, she had found an audience willing to listen and empathise with such immense injustices.
After her first successful speaking tour to Britain, Ida B. Wells returned a year later in 1894. This time, she went as a reporter for the Daily Inter Ocean, a white-majority Chicago newspaper, the only such newspaper in the United States to denounce lynchings at the time. Her role as reporter was seminal, making Ida B. Wells the first African American woman to be a paid correspondent for a white-majority publication.
We find in the Evening Herald (Dublin), 30 April 1894, a long profile of Ida B. Wells. Contained within this profile are some graphic descriptions of instances of lynching from across the Southern States, as described by Ida B. Wells herself.
The Evening Herald (Dublin) describes Wells as being ‘a woman of culture, a clear effective platform speaker, and a dashing journalist of the American order.’ It narrates her early life; how, on the death of her parents, at fourteen-years-old, she supported her siblings through teaching, whilst also finding ‘her way into journalism.’
Moving from Holly Springs, Mississippi, to Memphis, Tennessee, Ida B. Wells wrote for Free Speech, documenting instances of lynching and racial inequality. It was her crusade to demonstrate the truth behind the epidemic of lynching in the Southern States. To this end, she shared with the newspaper a powerful excerpt of an article she had written for the Free Speech newspaper:
Eight negroes lynched since the last issue of ‘Free Speech,’ three for killing a white man, the other five on the same old racket – the new alarm about raping a white woman. The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies, was carried out to the letter. Nobody in this section 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 reputation of their women.
She goes on to relate how 1,000 African American men and women had been lynched in the last decade, and ‘of the 800 lynched in the years 1882-1891, only 269 were charged with criminal assault.’ And yet:
‘…the Press of America will keep on saying – and the pulpit acquiesces the while – that men are only lynched for crimes against women and children.’
Try Your Criminal First
It is in this long article for the Evening Herald (Dublin) that Ida B. Wells offers a litany of examples of the lynch law being brutally enacted across the Southern States. This is one of the few newspapers sources that offers such a record. You can read the article in its entirety here.
One such example Wells offers is the case of a cook in Jackson, Tennessee, from the summer of 1886:
‘…a white woman died of poisoning. Her black cook was suspected and as a box of rat-poison was found in her room she was hurried away to jail. When the mob had worked itself up to the proper lynching pitch, she was dragged out of jail, every stitch of clothing torn from her body, and she was hanged in the courthouse square in sight of everybody. The husband of the poisoned women has since died a raving maniac, and his ravings showed he was the murderer of his wife.’
She remembers also the lynching of a 15-year-old girl in Raysville, Louisiana, and the hanging of a Black woman from a railway bridge in Hollendale, Mississippi, both in 1892 and both accused of murder.
And the families of those targeted by the lynch mobs were not safe either. In Jonesville, Louisiana, an African American man named Hastings was accused of the murder of a white man. He managed to evade the mob, and Ida B. Wells narrates what happened next:
‘They took his little girl, fourteen years old. And his son, sixteen, hanged them on the nearest tree, and shot their bodies full of holes. On the fifth day they captured Hastings, hanging and shot him, and there was no pretence of a trial, no evidence, no anything but the bare suspicions.’
And the brutality enacted by these mobs did not just extend to hanging. Tragically, desperately, those seized by lynch mobs were subject to the worst kinds of torture. Ida B. Wells tells of a woman in Texas who was placed in barrel filled with spikes, and rolled down a hill.
Then there was the case of Henry Smith of Paris, again in Texas. It was this case that had drawn the attention of Impey and Mayo, and provoked their invitation to Wells. Having been paraded around the town, Smith was subjected to torture with hot irons. Oil was then thrown over him, and he was set alight in front of a mob of hundreds, many of ‘whom had come in by special trains’ to see the appalling spectacle.
Smith had been accused of killing a four-year-old girl, and Wells outlines how there was no proof linking him to the crime. She was challenged by the journalist interviewing her – ‘Suppose he was guilty?’ To this supposition, she gave this powerful rejoinder:
‘Yes, suppose he were,’ she interrupted, ‘make your laws as terrible as you like against that class of crime; devise what tortures you will: inflict death by any means you choose; go back to the most barbarous methods of the most barbarous ages, and then my case is just as strong. Prove your man guilty first, hang him, shoot him, pour coal oil over him, and roast him if you have concluded that civilisation demands this; but be sure that the man has committed the crime first. Give him a fair trial, with the protection of the law, with the guarantee of justice. Try you criminal before you roast him.’
Ida B. Wells was seeking justice, and she hoped that through her mission to Britain, she would be able to find it.
Not Sympathy – But Justice
Ida B. Wells’s speaking tour continued; at the end of May 1894 she spoke at the ‘annual meeting of the Aborigines Protection Society’ at Centenary Hall, London. As the Colonies and India reports, Wells spoke again on the lynching of African Americans in the ‘Southern portions of the United States.’
She spoke also in Leeds, as the Leeds Times reports on 7 July 1894. Her talk was given at the Belgrave Lecture Hall, where a ‘large audience assembled’ to hear Wells speak, after she was introduced by the Mayoress Mrs Leuty.
Again, Wells gave ‘vivid descriptions’ of some of the lynching cases, outlining how in 1893 there were 159 lynchings, and how, up to May 1894, there had been 50, where two victims had been burned alive, and another ‘actually flayed.’
She also describes the miscarriages of justice which led to such lynchings:
…she asserted that in two-thirds of the cases those were not the charges brought forward, FARCICAL INVESTIGATIONS were sometimes held, but too often the leaders of the mobs were members of the jury, and returned a verdict that the person had met his death at the hands of some person unknown.
It was, therefore, not ‘maudlin sympathy‘ that the Black population of the United States demanded, but ‘justice and…a fair trial.’ And since ‘America had paid no heed to the demand…she would listen to the voice of England.’
A Step in the Right Direction
By May 1894, British newspapers were reporting that Ida B. Wells’s campaign had already born some fruit. The Bradford Daily Telegraph, 21 May 1894, reports how ‘The friends of freedom generally will rejoice’ to hear the latest news from Ohio, where ‘a bill for the discouragement of lynching [had] been introduced into legislature.’
This bill is described by the newspaper as a ‘step in the right direction;’ the bill allowing lynching victims’ families to claim compensation, as well as enforcing prison sentences (‘for a term of not less than three years’) to those taking part in lynching.
Meanwhile, a report of Wells’s British tour had reached the pages of the newspapers in the Californian city of Santa Cruz. The South Wales Daily News, 30 May 1894, contains the following letter from the city’s citizens:
We the undersigned citizens of Santa Cruz, having our attention called to your mission in England, and to the terrible cruelties resulting from the lynch law in many of our States, which falls both upon black and white, and which is a shame and a disgrace to our religion and our civilisation, hereby invite you on your return from England to lay your case before the citizens of Santa Cruz. In favour of the enforcement of just and impartial laws for all, without regard to colour or creed, we are, yours, sincerely.
This letter was signed by the Judge of the Superior Court, the sheriff, the mayor, the postmaster, by barristers, schoolmasters, physicians, ministers of different churches, justices of the peace, editors of the daily papers, bankers, tradesmen, and the United States senator for that district. To the letter, sixty names were affixed in all.
In addition to this, Wells’s efforts were recognised at ‘The Coloured Inter-State Press Convention’ when they met at Jackson, Mississippi, as reports the Sheffield Independent on 12 July 1894. They ‘passed a resolution expressing appreciation and endorsement of the labourers of Miss Ida B.Wells in England on behalf of her race.’
Sterling Integrity and Unwavering Zeal
But on 13 July 1894, Ida B. Wells came under attack from one George Foy, who wrote to the Evening Herald (Dublin). Not only did he accuse her of perpetrating ‘vile calumny on Southern women,’ he states that her account of the lynching of three Black business men in Memphis was an example ‘of the worst form of lies.’
However, Ida B. Wells’s friends in Britain and beyond were quick to spring to her defence. The London Daily News, 26 July 1894, printed an ‘important communication’ from a ‘number of citizens of St. Louis, Missouri,’ which represented ‘a declaration of public confidence in Miss Ida B. Wells.’
Meanwhile, letters to the Evening Herald (Dublin) addressed the attack by George Foy directly, which had been fuelled by an article in the Memphis Commercial. Florence Balgarnie, the suffragette and feminist, compiled a series of extracts vindicating Ida B. Wells from her detractors.
J.L. Fleming, editor of the Chicago Free Speech, writes how:
I know of my own personal knowledge that her reputation for honour, virtue, and integrity has never been questioned, and that in no way or manner was her name unfavourably associated with any resident of Memphis during her stay there; and that the charges made by the ‘Memphis Commercial’ against her good name are notorious and malignant falsehoods, without a shade of excuse for their publication.
Meanwhile, the Reverend C.F. Aked, a Baptist minister from Liverpool, noted her ‘splendid and unselfish efforts in behalf of our race,’ and his faith in the ‘nobility and purity of her character:’
Miss Wells is known throughout our land, and universally honoured as a woman of sterling integrity, unwavering zeal and unsullied character. Her reputation is above reproach, and has never been assailed, except by the conscienceless coward, who helped to make her an exile, and who knows that to seek redress she must risk her life among the very men who have threatened her with death. Against such a charge, so made, her whole life of honour, virtue and integrity, is put in evidence.
Aked ends by stating how Wells represents ‘our ablest, most serious and purest womanhood,’ and how she has become ‘a martyr to Southern hate.’
It should bring a blush to the cheek of the United States people that a portion of their fellow-citizens have to look abroad for sympathy and moral condemnation for their wrongs. That is what the American negroes have had to do. Having lost all hope from their country’s sense of right, they at last appealed to its sense of shame. For its barbarity towards them they have exposed it in the eyes of the nation that it is always most enviously comparing itself with.
This was done, the article says, through ‘the lectures delivered in England by Ida B. Wells.’ By taking the struggle of African Americans across the Atlantic, Wells had highlighted huge domestic injustices on an international stage. Her speaking tours of Britain were brave, politically-charged, and fuelled by the desire to bring about lasting and meaningful change.
The Toronto Daily Mail goes on to note how:
Miss Wells appears to have found willing and sympathetic hearers in England, and to have made a strong impression by her accounts of the lynchings and social ostracism of her people.
But when Ida B. Wells left Britain, her name was hardly to be found in the British press again. She went on to continue her civil rights leadership, however, also campaigning for female suffrage, passing away in 1931 aged 68, a true pioneer in the battle for civil liberties. And although not mentioned in the British press again, she had left an indelible mark on those who she had met, raising awareness of the brutal injustices of the lynch law in the United States. She awakened Britain to what was happening across the Atlantic, and it seems she was welcomed by the majority in her crusade.
And Ida B. Wells left her mark in the newspapers, which abound with praise for her. And through these pages we can also remember the victims of the brutality of the lynch law, which was still enacted decades after her speaking tour. Meanwhile, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice now stands in Montgomery, Alabama, a permanent memorial to the Black victims of lynching in the United States.