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TW: Race-based violence
When I think about my future as a journalist, I often think of the greats who came before me. I think about Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate Scandal story. I think of the Spotlight investigation team at the Boston Globe, who told the world about sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. Mostly, though, I think of Ida B. Wells, the Black woman who exposed lynchings in the American south.
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. A few months later, she and her family would be freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that any enslaved person in any state would be declared forever free. When she was 16 years old, her mother, father, and infant brother died of yellow fever. In order to keep her family together, Ida began working as a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee where she founded the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight Newspaper.
Ida began writing articles about the quality of the lives of Black Americans in the south. She was dismissed from her teaching post in 1891 for her articles criticising the quality of education in Black schools in Memphis, and although she was devastated by this, she was undeterred in her journalism and began to devote much of her time to her newspaper.
In 1889, following a race riot resulting from an altercation between a white and a Black youth in South Memphis outside of a Black-owned grocery store, three Black men were arrested for inciting an armed rebellion. In fact, the men, including the store owner, who was a friend of Ida’s, had fired on a group of white men in self-defence, and for good reason. The white men had returned to the store to exact revenge for the riots the previous day. While in jail, the three men were abducted from their cells by a group of 75 masked white men, taken to a C&O Railroad junction a mile north of the city, and shot dead.
This event, the death of her friend, pushed Ida to begin investigating lynchings in the American south, including ones in which the Black male victims were accused of rape by white women with whom they were having consensual sexual relations. If this situation sounds familiar, you have probably read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which features a legal case with a similar inciting action. In an editorial in Free Speech, Wells wrote about “that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
These comments enraged the local white population. In 1892, a mob of white men ransacked the building that held Free Speech, destroying the building and everything within it. Ida was not in Memphis at the time, and she was never able to return to the city. This did not stop her from writing about lynchings, however, and she published a pamphlet in 1895 with the findings of her research entitled The Red Record.
This pamphlet explored the history of white violence against Black southerners since the American Civil War. The Red Record captured the attention of white northerners, who had not yet known the extent of the violence that Black men suffered in the south. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 4,084 Black men were lynched in the American south between 1877 and 1950, 25% of which were the result of accusations of sexual assault against the victims. It is likely this number is much higher, but we would not know the number at all if it were not for the work of Ida B. Wells.
Wells wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.” It is these words that run through my mind when I think of my future as a journalist, and I make a promise to her to try and shine that light wherever I end up.
Image via New York Public Library’s – GetArchive