Commemorating 125 Years Since the People’s Grocery Story Lynching that Launched the Ida B. Wells’ Campaign

On the 125th anniversary of a lynching in Memphis that launched the anti-lynching crusade of noted journalist Ida B. Wells, those attending remembrance events Thursday were cautioned that the circumstances that led to the lynching of three black men can be seen today.

“I want people to understand the factors that gave rise to this particular incident, because the same factors that gave rise to this particular incident are some of the same factors that gave rise to our present dilemmas,” said Clarence Christian, president of the Memphis branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which organized the program.

On March 9, 1892, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart — the owners of People’s Grocery — were killed by a white mob.

The conflict that led to the lynching began after People’s Grocery began to take business away from white grocer William Barnett.

“These were three young businessmen who were doing very well. These were three young men who were known by both blacks and whites in the community. This was a shock, not just to black folks, but to white folks,” said Earnestine Jenkins, a professor at the University of Memphis.

In the days before the lynching, there were several altercations between African Americans and whites near the store and the co-owners armed themselves in preparation for a mob attack. Late one Saturday night, they fired on a contingent of white police officers that included Barnett, who had been deputized.

The next day, McDowell, Moss and Stewart were arrested. Several days later they were taken from jail by a white mob and shot to death.

Wells, who was a Memphis journalist at the time, was a close friend of Moss and his lynching launched her crusade that she would continue until her death.

Wells, through her research, also would prove that often lynchings carried out in the name of justice for the sake of white women were in fact based on economics, Jenkins said.

“The thing that got her really threatened with not coming back to Memphis is she was the first one to say lynchings were not occurring because black men are raping white women,” Jenkins said. “She said these men were killed because of the economic success that they were having, because of the larger economic success that black people were actually having in spite of Jim Crow at the end of the 19th century.”

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Source: USA Today | Linda A. Moore, The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal