The People's Grocery
             ... and Ida B. Wells

 

Prologue: "Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart, all African-Americans and co-owners of People's Grocery, were arrested in connection with a disturbance near their store.  Rather than being brought to trial, they were lynched on March 9, 1892.  Moss' dying words were, "Tell my people to go west -- there is no justice for them here."  This lynching prompted Ida B. Wells, editor of Memphis Free Speech to begin her anti-lynching campaign in this country and abroad."

 

For sometime this website has wanted to do a page on Ida B. Wells, but hundreds of very similar pages were already posed on the internet.  We needed something to set our page apart.  That "something" escaped us, until  August 2014, when we noticed a photo for sale on eBay advertised as a "Vintage Memphis horse and buggy delivery."  We didn't even look at the horse and buggy, because the sign on the building in the background jumped out of the photo ...


Click on small photos to see an enlargement


 

 

This is the postcard photo found on eBay - August 2014  >

Ordinarily the photo of the horse and buggy delivering "Van Buren Cigars" would have interested us.  But we quickly realized that this may be the only  photo of the "People's Grocery" which was located at the intersection of Mississippi Blvd and Walker Avenue - an area known as "The curve" because the streetcar line curved sharply at this intersection.  

 

Delivery by horse and buggy...


It was here that Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart opened their People's Grocery - across the street from another grocery owned by W. R. Barrett, who was white.  The People's Grocery's greatest crime was that it competed successfully against the white store that once had a monopoly on the black trade. The animosity from this competition led to another violent face-off between the races in Memphis.

     Grocery  locations  
Briefly, this is reportedly what happened...
 

One day outside the People's Grocery, some colored and white boys quarreled over a game of marbles, resulting in a boy's fight, which led to an adult's fight.  And the People's Grocery keepers were drawn into the dispute.  When it was over, a challenge was issued that the whites were coming over Saturday night to clean our the People's Grocery Company. 

The Grocery Company armed themselves to repel any attack.  About 10 PM Saturday night, they saw several white men coming through the rear door and immediately fired on them.  Three white men were wounded.

Sunday morning's newspaper had headlines telling how officers of the law had been wounded while in the discharge of their duties - calling the People's Grocery "...a low dive in which drinking and gambling were carried on ...and a resort of thieves and thugs".  Over 100 colored men, including Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, were dragged from their homes and jailed. 

Memphis Daily Appeal

 

Crowds began forming at the Jail.  A mob broke into the jail and took the three men outside.  Moss reportedly begged for his life, and when asked if he had any last words, replied "Tell my people to go West - there is no justice for them here".  He was then fatally shot.  McDowell reportedly got hold of one of the lyncher's guns and refused to release it until a bullet shattered his fist.  Both he and Stewart were then fatally shot and McDowell's eyes were gouged out. 

The bodies of Thomas Moss,  Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart were discovered in an open  field at dawn, partially covered by brush.   >

1892 Drawing of victims

These three men were interred in the old Zion Cemetery.   Only Moss's grave has been located, in an overgrown area of other 1892 graves.   >

Activist Ida B. Wells was a close friend of Thomas Moss and was God Mother to his young daughter.  She was also friends with the other two men.  She began writing articles in her newspaper denouncing this and all lynchings in the south.

No one was ever charged for the lynchings ...


Mahendra Prasad writes: 
"I've been doing some historical research...on the People's Grocery lynchings.  I've found some interesting info on the exact location of the lynchings ... attached is a write up of my findings...for anyone who'd like to pursue it further..."   >

  M. Prasad paper Location Map Location - Today

The Memphis Directories below show the 1890, 91, 92 listings for People's Grocery at Hernando and Walker Avenue.  That section of Hernando is now named Mississippi Blvd.   All directory listings for Barrett show his initials as W. R.  Almost all of the articles below have his initials as W. H. ... some even have his name as W. H. Barnett instead of Barrett.

  .

1890-91-92 Directory Listings for People's Grocery

Barrett Listing

Wells - Moss Family

The Curve - today

      

Below are a few of the hundreds of articles about this infamous Memphis lynching.  Each one varies a little but essentially they all have about the same facts.  The last one is the 1892 version written by Ida B. Wells as she begins her anti-lynching campaign.  It is included in her auto-biography.

     

1999 2002 2006 2009 2010 2011

Wells writing

Who is Ida B. Wells?  

Although she's virtually forgotten today, Ida B. Wells was once a household name in Black America - especially during her lifetime (1863-1931).  She would have been the equal of the well-known Booker T. Washington. 

   

Ida B. Wells, a daughter of slaves, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, July 16, 1862.  After the Civil War, her father became a member of the board of trustees for Rust College and this was where Wells received her early schooling.  She had to drop out at age 16 when tragedy struck the family.  Both of her parents and one of her siblings died in a yellow fever outbreak, leaving Ida to care for the others.  She convinced a school administrator that she was 18 and landed a job as a teacher.  In 1882, Wells moved with her sisters to Memphis to live with an aunt.

Holly Springs, MS  

1884 became a turning point in Ida's life.  Buying a first-class train ticket to Nashville, she was outraged when the conductor ordered her to move to the car for African Americans.  She refused (Many years before Rosa Parks) and was forcibly removed from the train.  She sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in court, but the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Memphis Marker          

Ida Ida Ida Ida

Ida

The "injustice" of Tennessee Supreme Court, prompted Ida B. Wells to begin writing about issues of race and politics in the South.  Eventually she became a co-owner of the "Memphis Free Speech." newspaper, where she began writing articles condemning violence against blacks, poor schools, and the failure of black people to fight for their rights.  While working as a journalist, she also held a position as a teacher in a segregated Memphis public school - where she became a vocal critic of the conditions of black-only schools.  In 1891, she was fired for these attacks. 

 

Auto-biography

     

Ida was friends with Thomas Moss, McDowell and Stewart.  She was the godmother to Moss' young daughter.  The 1892 brutal killings of her friends led her to write articles denouncing the lynching - and the wrongful deaths of many other African Americans.  One editorial in particular, about black men raping white women, pushed some of the city's whites over the edge .  A mob stormed the office of her newspaper and destroyed all of the equipment.  Wells was traveling in New York City at the time and was warned that she would be killed if she ever returned to Memphis.  She did not return.

   

Wells relocated to Chicago and wrote in-depth reports on lynching in America.  Her anti-lyching campaign gained attention in the northern states and in Great Britain, where she lectured.  in 1896 she founded the National Association of Colored Women.  By 1898 she brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House - although Congress never passed anti-lynching legislation.  In 1909 she helped found the NAACP.  She had married Ferdinand Barnett in 1898 and settled in Chicago.  The couple eventually had four children and Ida remained committed to her social and political activism against racism.  She died of kidney disease in 1931, at the age of 69.

   

Husband F. Barnett

Extended Barnett Family

Ida and kids

Barnett Home

Barnett Grave

Wells Stamp

        

Eventually, Ida B. Wells campaign led the Memphis newspapers to denounce lynching.  Local leaders discovered that the national and international publicity drew unwanted attention to the negative images of the city and was bad for business. 

     

  

 
 
 

Credits

 

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