We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.
Racial terror lynchings were not limited to the South, but the Southern states had the most in the nation: over 4,000 between 1877 and 1950.
Reported lynchings by county
More than six million African Americans fled the South in the first half of the 20th century. Terror lynchings and other racial violence played a key role in this forced migration of black Americans to the North and West. Many fled in fear for their lives.
Percentage of total U.S. African American population
After her 3 friends were lynched, Ida B. Wells wrote editorials urging the black community to flee Memphis. A mob retaliated by destroying her offices. This is her story.
After her friends Calvin McDowell, William Stewart, and Thomas Moss were lynched in Memphis on March 9, 1892, journalist Ida B. Wells published editorials urging the black community to leave Memphis since it “will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” A mob retaliated by destroying Ms. Wells’s offices, and on May 27, 1892, she fled for the North. From there she continued her work, becoming the nation’s foremost anti-lynching activist, collaborating with leaders like Frederick Douglass and helping to found the NAACP. Ms. Wells died of natural causes in 1931. Lynchings still raged across the South, and more than six million African Americans fled as refugees from terror. Over the course of the Great Migration, the number of lynchings declined, but not until 1952 did a full year pass without a recorded lynching in the United States.
In 1892 in Memphis, TN, being black and successful was a threat to the racial hierarchy. This is the story of Calvin McDowell, William Stewart, and Thomas Moss, owners of People’s Grocery.
In the late 1800s, three black men, Calvin McDowell, William Stewart, and Thomas Moss, opened a store, People’s Grocery in Memphis, Tennessee. The success of the black-owned business posed an economic threat to the status quo, resulting in a violent confrontation between the owners and a group of white men. The white men, who were law enforcement officers, responded by jailing over 100 black men, including the store owners. On March 9,1892, 75 masked men seized Mr. Moss, Mr. McDowell, and Mr. Stewart from jail. They placed ropes around their necks, murdering them in an open field. Asked for his last words, Mr. Moss responded, “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice for them here.” Despite several eyewitnesses and a grand jury investigation, no one was ever held responsible. In the days following the incident, the African American community continued to be terrorized by white citizens, causing over 6,000 black people to flee Memphis in just three months.
In Grayson County, TX, 10,000 people witnessed Henry Smith’s lynching. It was a carnival-like event, with vendors selling food and photographers printing postcards. This is his story.
When Henry Smith, a black man, learned that he was suspected of killing a white girl, he fled his home of Paris, Texas, likely fearful of being lynched. Soon after, a posse seized Mr. Smith and without a full investigation or trial, named him the murderer of the girl. The police did not intervene at any time. On February 1, 1893, a mob of 10,000 gathered, stripping Mr. Smith naked and beating him. He was placed on a carnival float and paraded through town to the fairgrounds. There, he was tortured before a cheering crowd, including children, and burned alive. Afterward, the crowd clamored for souvenirs of the lynching: ashes and pieces of bone. Mr. Smith’s death was one of many public spectacle lynchings, in which crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands, gathered to witness heinous killings that featured prolonged suffering of the victim. Many were carnival-like events, with vendors selling food and photographers printing postcards.
In 1934 in Jackson County, FL, lynchings were often supported by the community, press, and government officials as a tactic for maintaining racial control. This is the story of Claude Neal.
On October 19, 1934, Florida farmhand Claude Neal was arrested, accused of the murder of a local white woman. Lynch mobs began forming before 23-year-old Neal had even been formally charged.
On October 26, Mr. Neal was seized from jail by six white men and brutally killed. Soon after, his corpse was presented to the community. They castrated, shot and burned his body. When the sheriff cut the body down from a tree and refused to rehang it, an angry mob rioted, burning the homes of Mr. Neal’s family and threatening black residents until they fled. A grand jury did not indict anyone for the lynching of Mr. Neal.
While lynchings are often thought to have been carried out by a handful of vigilantes, in truth they were often events supported by the community, press, and government officials. These lynchings were a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing not merely an individual, but the entire African American community.
In 1904 in Marengo County, AL, black men like Rufus Lesseur often never got the chance to defend themselves in a court of law. This is his story.
On August 14, 1904, a posse of white men seized Rufus Lesseur, a black man, and locked him in a makeshift jail, accusing him of sexually assaulting a white woman. During this era, black people were often the targets of suspicion when a crime was alleged. These accusations were rarely subjected to scrutiny. On August 16, without an investigation, trial, or conviction, a mob of men dragged Mr. Lesseur outside the makeshift jail and lynched him, leaving his body riddled with bullets. He was 24 years old. Rufus Lesseur was one of four known lynching victims in Marengo County, Alabama. He was lynched by a mob of unmasked white men in a town with only 300 residents, but the state claimed that no one could be identified, arrested, or prosecuted for his murder. Today, the makeshift jail where he was held still stands in Thomaston.