Ida B. Wells-Barnett: A Voice Crying Out for Change

 Afro-American press and its editors, by I. Garland Penn., 1891.

 Afro-American press and its editors, by I. Garland Penn., 1891.

In September of 1900 Ida B. Wells stopped the project she was working on to report on the outrageous actions that took place in New Orleans in July of that year.  Robert Charles was an African-American man who had an encounter with police, while sitting on the steps of a building with his friend, one night.  In that encounter shots were fired and Charles wounded one of the police officers.  Over the ensuing days, Charles would shoot and kill several police officers during shoot outs and citizens of New Orleans would join with police in an unprecedented manhunt.  

In a horrible course of events, mobs of men broke off to search for any African-American man or woman who might be out on the streets.  One man was taken from a street car and beaten to death; other African-American men were shot while on their way to work; a woman was attacked while in her home, sleeping, and shot while she lay in bed; a young man was beaten while in police custody, as he was being escorted to the police station...and the situation went on and on for days.  Homes were attacked, people were yanked off of public transportation, and anyone found walking on the streets was in danger of being attacked by a mob.  

Wells reported on the end of the violence in this way:

"Mob rule continued Thursday, its violence increasing every hour, until 2 p.m., when the climax seemed to be reached. The fact that colored men and women had been made the victims of brutal mobs, chased through the streets, killed upon the highways and butchered in their homes, did not call the best element in New Orleans to active exertion in behalf of law and order. The killing of a few Negroes more or less by irresponsible mobs does not cut much figure in Louisiana. But when the reign of mob law exerts a depressing influence upon the stock market and city securities begin to show unsteady standing in money centers, then the strong arm of the good white people of the South asserts itself and order is quickly brought out of chaos.

It was so with New Orleans on that Thursday. The better element of the white citizens began to realize that New Orleans in the hands of a mob would not prove a promising investment for Eastern capital, so the better element began to stir itself, not for the purpose of punishing the brutality against the Negroes who had been beaten, or bringing to justice the murderers of those who had been killed, but for the purpose of saving the city's credit. The Times-Democrat, upon this phase of the situation on Friday morning says:

'When it became known later in the day that State bonds had depreciated from a point to a point and a half on the New York market a new phase of seriousness was manifest to the business community. Thinking men realized that a continuance of unchecked disorder would strike a body blow to the credit of the city and in all probability would complicate the negotiation of the forthcoming improvement bonds.' ”

Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote about how the riots and the rule of the mob came to an end in New Orleans over several days, but she also went on to describe events that had occurred in the years leading up to New Orleans in 1900.

Keep in mind that in many of these cases no formal charges were ever brought against the men and a frenzy of fear and hate were fed by the constant criminalization of black men in media outlets which help to feed an environment where these types of things could happen in front of thousands of people.

She wrote:

"Not only has life been taken by mobs in the past twenty years, but the ordinary procedure(s) of hanging and shooting have been improved upon during the past ten years. Fifteen human beings have been burned to death in the different parts of the country by mobs. Men, women and children have gone to see the sight, and all have approved the barbarous deeds done in the high light of the civilization and Christianity of this country.

In 1891 Ed Coy was burned to death in Texarkana, Ark. He was charged with assaulting a white woman, and after the mob had securely tied him to a tree, the men and boys amused themselves for some time sticking knives into Coy's body and slicing off pieces, of flesh. When they had amused themselves sufficiently, they poured coal oil over him and the women in the case set fire to him. It is said that fifteen thousand people stood by and saw him burned. This was on a Sunday night, and press reports told how the people looked on while the Negro burned to death.

Feb. 1, 1893, Henry Smith was burned to death in Paris, Texas. The entire county joined in that exhibition. The district attorney himself went for the prisoner and turned him over to the mob. He was placed upon a float and drawn by four white horses through the principal streets of the city. Men, women and children stood at their doors and waved their handkerchiefs and cheered the echoes. They knew that the man was to be burned to death because the newspaper had declared for three days previous that this would be so. Excursions were run by all the railroads, and the mayor of the town gave the children a holiday so that they might see the sight.

Henry Smith was charged with having assaulted and murdered a little white girl. He was an imbecile, and while he had killed the child, there was no proof that he had criminally assaulted her. He was tied to a stake on a platform which had been built ten feet high, so that everybody might see the sight. The father and brother and uncle of the little white girl that had been murdered was upon that platform about fifty minutes entertaining the crowd of ten thousand persons by burning the victim's flesh with red-hot irons. Their own newspapers told how they burned his eyes out and, ran the red-hot iron down his throat, cooking his tongue, and how the crowd cheered wild delight. At last, having declared themselves satisfied, coal oil was poured over him and he was burned to death, and the mob fought over the ashes for bones and pieces of his clothes.

July 7, 1893, in Bardwell, Ky., C.J. Miller was burned to ashes. Since his death this man has been found to be absolutely innocent of the murder of the two white girls with which he was charged. But the mob would wait for no justification. They insisted that, as they were not sure he was the right man, they would compromise the matter by hanging him instead of burning. Not to be outdone, they took the body down and made a huge bonfire out of it.

July 22, 1893, at Memphis, Tenn., the body of Lee Walker was dragged through the street and burned before the court house. Walker had frightened some girls in a wagon along a country road by asking them to let him ride in their wagon. They cried out; some men working in a field near by said it was at attempt of assault, and of course began to look for their prey. There was never any charge of rape; the women only declared that he attempted an assault. After he was apprehended and put in jail and perfectly helpless, the mob dragged him out, shot him, cut him, beat him with sticks, built a fire and burned the legs off, then took the trunk of the body down and dragged further up the street, and at last burned it before the court house.

Sept. 20, 1893, at Roanoke, Va., the body of a Negro who had quarreled with a white woman was burned in the presence of several thousand persons. These people also wreaked their vengeance upon this helpless victim of the mob's wrath by sticking knives into him, kicking him and beating him with stones and otherwise mutilating him before life was extinct."

These are just some of the instances that Ida B. Wells documented in her report.  It is evidence of the kind of barbarism and "justice" black people were subjected to well into the twentieth century. 

It is the reason why we can't forget their lives, nor let twenty-first-century hate and frenzy criminalize our children in new, more technologically sophisticated ways.


Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2017.

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  Mob Rule in New Orleans. 1900.

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