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America is Made in the Curve
The legacy of the People's Grocery Lynching in Memphis in 1892
On a Sunday in 2022, we take in a heaping plate of fried catfish, collards, a generous wedge of cornbread, and peach cobbler at the Four Way Soul Food Restaurant at the intersection of Walker Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard in Memphis. We arrive just after doors open at 11, and just before the church crowd. The Four Way was opened in 1946 by Irene and Clint Leaves, who had been the chauffeur for Boss Crump. I do not know if the Cleaves chose the site intentionally, but the location of Memphis’ most famous “soul food” joint seems to take the role of “restaurant” literally: it is a site of communion of sorts, at the intersection of African American foodways and white violence, across the street from where the Peoples’ Grocery once stood.
A historical marker stands on the corner of Mississippi and Walker to mark the spot. On this day, the marker is a headless, mute silver post: the aluminum plaque has been lopped off and the post that held it a metal stalk growing up from a patch of crabgrass and asphalt.
In 1889, Ida B. Wells returned to Memphis to work at the Free Speech, a newspaper based in Beale Street Baptist Church. (She also owned a one-third stake in the paper.) In 1892, her career shifted when a close personal friend hers, Thomas Moss — along with Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell, all three of whom were proprietors of the Black-owned People’s Grocery at the Curve — were lynched by a white mob at a railyard in Memphis. The People’s Grocery lynching was the apparent result of white commercial resentment when white shop owner William Barrett found his monopoly on groceries challenged. The Appeal-Avalanche applauded the work of the lynchers, claiming: “Never were the plans of a mob more carefully and skillfully executed.” White dailies hastily pinned blame squarely on the shoulders of Black citizens “wrote up the murders in such harrowing detail that it was clear the reports had been called in advance to witness the lynching.”
Wells excoriated the practice of lynching and the system that tacitly or openly endorsed it in a May 21 editorial for Free Speech, the newspaper she worked for based in Beale Street Baptist Church. “Nobody in this section of the country,” she wrote, “believes the old thread-bare lies 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, or a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”1
It was so incendiary that Wells was forced to stay away from Memphis for her own safety. Edward Ward Carmack, newly-hired editor of The Memphis Commercial, responded with unrestrained vitriol: “The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. But we have had enough of it. There are some things that the Southern white man will not tolerate, and the obscene intimations of the foregoing have brought the writer to the very outermost limit of public patience.”2 The editor of the Scimitar, unaware of Wells’ identity, went even further, implying that readers “tie the author to a stake, brand him on the forehead, and perform a surgical operation on him with a pair of shears.”3
Ida was in Philadelphia when the Free Speech editorial appeared. While in the northeast, she learned that her home was being surveilled. She was warned 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 my friends to remain away.”4
Fearing for her safety, she stayed away from her former home, and encouraged her fellow Black Memphians to follow suit, and abandon the city. Within the week, angry white mobs comprehensively destroyed the vacated offices of the Free Speech. To this day, not a single copy of the Free Speech has survived.5 But months later, Carmack was still incensed. He held nothing back in a scathing rebuke of both Wells and Boston in a frothy and vengeful editorial that the “effete civilization of that city of thin-legged scholars and glass-eyed females finds pleasant mental diversion in worshiping at the large flat feet of Ida B. Wells, and in crowning her kinks with flowers from the conservatories of the elite.”6
Laid bare for readers — although not at all obvious to white ones in 1892 — was the distorted logic of the defense of Southern womanhood that Wells had the audacity to expose. Outraged at Wells’ “gross and scandalous libel upon the virtue of Southern womanhood,” calling her a “wretch” and a “black harlot,”7 Carmack’s solicitude for “Southern womanhood” extended only so far. The piece made it entirely clear whom the delicate abstraction “Southern womanhood” covered, and that it could just as easily be violated by “Black brutes” as well as educated Black women with a pen. Southern womanhood obviously did not include Black women like Wells, whom The Commercial editor likened to a figurative rapist for her literary outrages against the virtue of Southern ladydom.
As usual, white outrage was directed not against extrajudicial murder in the form of lynching, but against those who dared to call it out. For one thing, lynching was highly popular. Newspapers like the Commercial carried articles about lynchings daily, usually on their front pages. With its headline the day after the People’s Grocery lynching, the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche indulged the expectant bloodlust of its white readers with a sensational headline that read “LYNCHED!”8 Grammatically, it differed little from the kind of headline one sees now after the local football team wins a championship. While feeding readers’ appetites for lynching news, the paper also stoked fears of an imminent Black uprising. In October of that year, The Commercial ran a front-page story on an alleged “Black Mafia” which, the paper claimed, “An Oath-Bound Gang of Assassins” were organizing in Mississippi to “Murder White Citizens” and to carry local elections “by force of arms.” The newspaper ran a copy of one of the flyers published by the National Citizens’ Rights Association, claiming to expose the nefarious conspiracy being perpetrated by malicious Negroes in the name of civil rights.9 The Commercial suspected foul play underneath the harmless rhetoric of the flyer. But it is indicative of how far white anxiety at the end of the nineteenth century was willing to read between the lines, and attribute ill intent and subterfuge to every Black expression of desire for the same kinds of rights that white men enjoyed, to read as radical even the most basic commitments to established law guaranteeing full citizenship to non-whites.
The author of the flyer and President of the N.C.R.A., Albion W. Tourgee, was a white “carpetbagger” and Union Army veteran from Ohio. Possibly “the most vocal advocate of African American rights in the post-bellum period,”10 Tourgee was hardly a militant by later standards. The N.C.R.A. was arguably “the most direct ancestor of the N.A.A.C.P,”11 which, in the 1954 Brown decision, succeeded where the N.C.R.A. failed, namely, in Tourgee’s defense of Homer Plessy in the landmark Supreme Court case in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson. In our time, the aspirations of the National Citizens’ Rights Association do not read as a radical manifesto for Black power, but at the time they clearly gave white Southerners more than a little to worry about, and a putative excuse to exact payback against a rising Black populace.
This was the atmosphere in Memphis after the Peoples’ Grocery lynching, and after the departure of Ida B. Wells. Over 6,000 other Black Memphians followed Wells in vacating Memphis, mostly for the western territories.
No one was ever punished for the murders of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart. On the contrary, while Wells was under threat of vengeance, the pro-lynching Carmack enjoyed the fruits of his vitriol, being subsequently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1896, and to the U.S. Senate in 1901. Tennessee rewarded Wells’ most prominent antagonist in the state with a bronze statue, unveiled on 6 June 1925, erected on a not-at-all subtle site on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.12 It stood until the summer of 2020, when it was toppled by protestors who informally renamed the site “Ida B. Wells Plaza.” It would not be until 2021 that Wells was commemorated with a statue of her own, located adjacent to the Beale Street Baptist Church where she worked until 1892.
[The foregoing is an excerpt from my book Prologue to the South, forthcoming from The University of South Carolina Press.]
Free Speech, 21 May 1892, quoted in “Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” in The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, ed. Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014, p. 103. See also David M. Tucker, “Miss Ida B. Wells and Memphis Lynching,” Phylon (1960-) 32.2 (2nd Quarter, 1971), pp. 112-122; Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown, pp. 65ff; Giddings, Ida, pp. 184ff.
New Orleans Times-Democrat, 26 May 1892, p. 7.
Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, 27 May 1892, p. 3. See also Giddings, p. 212.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All its Phases,” The Light of Truth, p. 106.
Kenneth W. Goings, “Memphis Free Speech,” Tennessee Encyclopedia, 8 October 2017 (https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/memphis-free-speech/)
“A Colored Corday,” Memphis Commercial, 15 December 1892, p. 4.
Memphis Commercial, 15 December 1892, p. 4.
Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, 9 March 1892, p. 1.
Memphis Commercial, 16 October 1892, p. 2.
Brook Thomas, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Reconstruction,” American Literary Realism 50.1 (Fall 2017), pp. 1-24, at p. 9.
Otto H. Olsen, “Albion W. Tourgee and Negro Militants of the 1890’s: A Documentary Selection,” Science & Society 28.2 (Spring 1964), pp. 183-208, at p. 188. See also Olsen, “Albion W. Tourgee: Carpetbagger,” The North Carolina Historical Review 40.4 (October 1963), pp. 434-54.
The former site of the monument to Carmack at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville: