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Columbus State Community College
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    HIST 1152 American History since 1877 Primary Source Readings 2: Segregation

    HIST 1152 American History since 1877 Primary Source Readings 2: Segregation


    A collection of primary source readings for American History since 1877.

    Speech before the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition by Booker T. Washington

    The primary source readings in this course align with  The American Yawp open textbook by Stanford University Press.  While the original The American Yawp is accompanied by its own primary source reader called The American Yawp Reader, the selection of primary sources you will find in this course differ somewhat in that some of the text excerpts are from the same sources but might feature a different selection from the text. Some of the primary sources in this course are in addition to those found in The American Yawp Reader. 

    Microsoft Word and PDF downloads of these readings are available.

    To take this course for credit, register at Columbus State Community College.

    This work, except where otherwise indicated, by Jennifer Nardone at Columbus State Community College is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

    Booker T. Washington, seated, wearing three-piece suit and bow tie
    Booker T. Washington, ca. 1895



    Booker T. Washington was the most important and well-known African American educator during the late nineteenth century. He graduated from the Hampton Agricultural and Industrial Institute, also known as Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Just like Carlisle Indian School, Hampton taught service and domestic skills as well as industrial trades for African Americans. In fact, Hampton was the prototype for Carlisle. Army Colonel Richard Henry Pratt sent 17 former prisoners - all captured Plains Indians who had been sitting in jail for over a year – to Hampton for industrial training in lieu of further imprisonment. Pratt founded Carlisle Indian School based on the Hampton model.


    Washington, born a slave in Virginia, graduate from Hampton in 1881. A few years later he founded Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama, an industrial school also based on the Hampton model. Washington had to work with the local white community in order to survive and keep his school and students safe. He worked with white southerners every day. He was especially deft at raising donations from wealthy northern industrialists and business leaders like John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Julius Rosenwald, who all saw Tuskegee as the model solution to racial divisions. Washington agreed.


    By 1895, Washington was an internationally known writer, speaker, and pubic figure. As such, he was invited to deliver a speech at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta the same year. In front of an audience of white southern planters, Washington delivered a speech that seemed to endorse segregation and disenfranchisement. W.E.B. Du Bois called his speech, “The Atlanta Compromise,” and labelled it “accommodationist.”


    Washington died in 1915, a few months before Marcus Garvey arrived in the United States hoping to meet him. In the two decades since Washington’s Atlanta speech, Du Bois established the NAACP and its monthly magazine, The Crisis, and rose to the most prominent African American in the world.[1]


    Primary Source


    Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Board of Directors and Citizens:


    One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success. I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.


    Not only this, but the opportunity here afforded will awaken among us a new era of industrial progress. Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life[2] we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.


    A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, “Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River[3].


    To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”—cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.

    Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection, it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws[4] of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem[5]. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.


    “Cast down your bucket where you are!”


    To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue[6] and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, built your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.


    Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.


    There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand percent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed—blessing him that gives and him that takes. There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable:


    The laws of changeless justice bind

    Oppressor with oppressed;

    And close as sin and suffering joined

    We march to fate abreast.


    Nearly sixteen millions of hands will aid you in pulling the load upward, or they will pull against you the load downward. We shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress; we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic.


    Gentlemen of the Exposition, as we present to you our humble effort at an exhibition of our progress, you must not expect overmuch. Starting thirty years ago with ownership here and there in a few quilts and pumpkins and chickens (gathered from miscellaneous sources), remember the path that has led from these to the inventions and production of agricultural implements, buggies, steam-engines, newspapers, books, statuary, carving, paintings, the management of drug stores and banks, has not been trodden without contact with thorns and thistles.


    While we take pride in what we exhibit as a result of our independent efforts, we do not for a moment forget that our part in this exhibition would fall far short of your expectations but for the constant help that has come to our educational life, not only from the southern states, but especially from northern philanthropists, who have made their gifts a constant stream of blessing and encouragement.


    The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.


    In conclusion, may I repeat that nothing in thirty years has given us more hope and encouragement, and drawn us so near to you of the white race, as this opportunity offered by the Exposition; and here bending, as it were, over the altar that represents the results of the struggles of your race and mine, both starting practically empty-handed three decades ago, I pledge that in your effort to work out the great and intricate problem which God has laid at the doors of the South, you shall have at all times the patient, sympathetic help of my race; only let this be constantly in mind, that, while from representations in these buildings of the product of field, of forest, of mine, of factory, letters, and art, much good will come, yet far above and beyond material benefits will be that higher good, that, let us pray God, will come, in a blotting out of sectional differences and racial animosities and suspicions, in a determination to administer absolute justice, in a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law. This, coupled with our material prosperity, will bring into our beloved South a new heaven and a new earth.


    This work by Jennifer Nardone at Columbus State Community College is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0, except where otherwise indicated.


    [2] What does he mean by the “first years of our new life?”

    [3] “Cast down your buckets where you are,” is a line from Hermann Melville’s epic 1851 novel, Moby Dick. A crew member on the Pequod (the ship in pursuit of the white whale) recounts story about a ship lost off the coast of Brazil. The crew is dying of thirst. ( “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” – The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coolidge, 1798, also referring to the tragic irony of dying of thirst in the middle of an ocean of water). They finally see another ship, and the people on board tell them to cast down their buckets where they are. The dying crew discovers they are at the mouth of the Amazon River surrounded by freshwater, not saltwater.

    [4] Knickknacks and other things that don’t do anything but look nice.

    [5] This is a bold statement. What does he mean?

    [6] Who does he mean?

    Image: Booker T. Washington from Library of Congress is believed to be in the public domain.

    Of Mr. Washington and Others by W.E.B. Du Bois

    Photo shows W.E.B. Du Bois, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right.
    W.E.B. Du Bois, ca. 1919

    Of Mr. Washington and Others

    W.E.B. Du Bois


    William Edward Bughardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868. He was the first African American man to earn a Ph.D. (in history!) from Harvard University in 1896 (women were not admitted to Harvard College until the 1960s). A prolific writer, Du Bois published over 30 scholarly books across a variety of disciplines in addition to hundreds of essays, editorials, papers, and other material[1]. He also gave hundreds of public talks and speeches around the world.


    Du Bois was not a fan of Booker T. Washington’s 1895 “Speech at the Atlanta and International Cotton Expositions” Immediately following the speech, Du Bois published a series of essays criticizing Washington’s “accommodationist” message, and calling the speech “the Atlanta Compromise” (Du Bois coined both phrases). Du Bois believed Washington encouraged African Americans to comply with segregation and disenfranchisement which only validated white supremacy. Washington responded, also in the press. Basically, he called Du Bois an elitist: born in the North after the Civil War (remember Washington was born a slave in Virginia), educated at Harvard, and a person who never had to survive in the rural South, something Washington did every day. Washington and Du Bois carried on a public dialogue until Washington’s death in 1916.


    Du Bois embraced his elitism, arguing that the black community needed elites more than ever – scholars, doctors, writers, artists, innovators, what he called “the talented tenth.” In 1905, he formed The Niagara Movement with several other prominent African American men personally invited by Du Bois. Men he considered the talented tenth of the black community. Washington was not invited. The Niagara Movement was the predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For the next 25 years, Du Bois ran the organization and edited its monthly magazine called The Crisis. During the 1930s, Du Bois had a falling out with his protégé, Walter White, and quit the organization he founded.


    Two years before the first meeting of the Niagara Movement, Du Bois published his best-known and most important book, a collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk. In the book, Du Bois argued that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” The first essay, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” is one of the most eloquent, powerful consideration of race and identity ever written. In the third essay, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” Du Bois argued once again against Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” It was eight years after the speech, Du Bois pointed out, and the damage caused by Washington’s accommodationist message was clear.


    Du Bois moved to African in 1961 at the age of 95. He died on August 27, 1963, the day before the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech. The crowd of 250,000 people stood in silence for an entire minute in honor of Du Bois and his incredible legacy. Du Bois was born three years after the Civil War and died one month after passage of the Civil Rights Act. His life was an arc of history[2]


    Easily the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro since 1876[3] is the ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington. It began at the time when war memories and ideals were rapidly passing; a day of astonishing commercial development was dawning…Mr. Washington came, with a single definite program, at the psychological moment when the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes and was concentrating its energies on Dollars. His program of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights, was not wholly original… But Mr. Washington put enthusiasm, unlimited energy, and perfect faith into this program, and changed it from a by-path into a veritable Way of Life. And the tale of the methods by which he did this is a fascinating study of human life.


    To gain the sympathy and cooperation of the various elements comprising the white South was Mr. Washington’s first task; and this, at the time Tuskegee was founded, seemed, for a black man, well-nigh impossible. And yet ten years later it was done in the words spoken at Atlanta: “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This “Atlanta Compromise” is by all odds the most notable thing in Mr. Washington’s career. The South interpreted it in different ways: the radicals received it as a complete surrender of the demand for civil and political equality; the conservatives, as a generously conceived working basis for mutual understanding. So, both approved it, and today its author is certainly the most distinguished Southerner since Jefferson Davis, and the one with the largest personal following. [4]


    Next to this achievement comes Mr. Washington’s work in gaining place and consideration in the North. Others less shrewd and tactful had formerly essayed to sit on these two stools and had fallen between them; but as Mr. Washington knew the heart of the South from birth and training, so by singular insight he intuitively grasped the spirit of the age which was dominating the North. And so thoroughly did he learn the speech and thought of triumphant commercialism, and the ideals of material prosperity that the picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities…


    So, Mr. Washington’s cult has gained unquestioning followers, his work has wonderfully prospered, his friends are legion, and his enemies are confounded. To-day he stands as the one recognized spokesman of his ten million fellows, and one of the most notable figures in a nation of seventy millions. One hesitates, therefore, to criticize a life which, beginning with so little has done so much. And yet the time is come when one may speak in all sincerity and utter courtesy of the mistakes and shortcomings of Mr. Washington’s career, as well as of his triumphs, without being thought captious or envious, and without forgetting that it is easier to do ill than well in the world…


    Booker T. Washington arose as essentially the leader not of one race but of two, - a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro. Naturally the Negroes resented, at first bitterly, signs of compromise which surrendered their civil and political rights, even though this was to be exchanged for larger chances of economic development. The rich and dominating North, however, was not only weary of the race problem, but was investing largely in Southern enterprises, and welcomed any method of peaceful cooperation. Thus, by national opinion, the Negroes began to recognize Mr. Washington’s leadership; and the voice of criticism was hushed.


    Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his program unique. This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s program naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money[5] to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life. Moreover, this is an age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed races, and the race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington’s program practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens.


    In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negro’s tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.


    In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things, -


    First, political power,

    Second, insistence on civil rights,

    Third, higher education of Negro youth,


    - and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:


    1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.

    2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.

    3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.


    These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment. The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. And Mr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:


    1. He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans, business men, and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.
    2. He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the long run.
    3. He advocates common-school and industrial training, and depreciates institutions of higher learning; but neither the Negro common-schools, nor Tuskegee itself, could remain open a day were it not for teachers trained in Negro colleges, or trained by their graduates.


    …(Many) acknowledge Mr. Washington’s invaluable service in counselling patience and courtesy in such demands; they do not ask that ignorant black men vote when ignorant whites are debarred, or that any reasonable restrictions in the suffrage should not be applied; they know that the low social level or the mass of the race is responsible for much discrimination against it, but they also know, and the nation knows, that relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation; they seek the abatement of this relic or barbarism, and not its systematic encouragement and pampering by all agencies of social power from the Associated Press to the Church of Christ. They advocate, with Mr. Washington, a broad system of Negro common schools supplemented by thorough industrial training; but they are surprised that a man of Mr. Washington’s insight cannot see that no such educational system ever has rested or can rest on any other basis than that of the well-equipped college and university, and they insist that there is a demand for a few such institutions throughout the South to train the best of the Negro youth as teachers, professional men, and leaders.


    This group of men honor Mr. Washington for his attitude of conciliation toward the white South; they accept the “Atlanta Compromise” in its broadest interpretation; they recognize, with him, many signs of promise, many men of high purpose and fair judgment…but, nevertheless, they insist that the way to truth and right lies in straightforward honesty…They do not expect that the free right to vote, to enjoy civic rights, and to be educated, will come in a moment; they do not expect to see the bias and prejudices of years disappear at the blast of a trumpet; but they are absolutely certain that the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them; that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood[6], that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.


    In failing thus to state plainly and unequivocally the legitimate demands of their people, even at the cost of opposing an honored leader, the thinking classes of American Negroes would shirk a heavy responsibility, - a responsibility to themselves, a responsibility to the struggling masses, a responsibility to the darker races of men whose future depends so largely on this American experiment, but especially a responsibility to this nation, - this common Fatherland[7]. It is wrong to encourage a man or a people in evil-doing; it is wrong to aid and abet a national crime simply because it is unpopular not to do so. The growing spirit of kindliness and reconciliation between the North and South after the frightful difference of a generation ago ought to be a source of deep congratulation to all, and especially to those whose mistreatment caused the war; but if that reconciliation is to be marked by the industrial slavery and civic death of those same black men, with permanent legislation into a position of inferiority, then those black men, if they are really men, are called upon by every consideration of patriotism and loyalty to oppose such a course by all civilized methods, even though such opposition involves disagreement with Mr. Booker T. Washington. We have no right to sit silently by while the inevitable seeds are sown for a harvest of disaster to our children, black and white[8].


    It would be unjust to Mr. Washington not to acknowledge that in several instances he has opposed movements in the South which were unjust to the Negro; he sent memorials to the Louisiana and Alabama constitutional conventions, he has spoken against lynching, and in other ways has openly or silently set his influence against sinister schemes and unfortunate happenings. Notwithstanding this, it is equally true to assert that on the whole the distinct impression left by Mr. Washington’s propaganda is, first, that the South is justified in its present attitude toward the Negro because of the Negro’s degradation; secondly, that the prime cause of the Negro’s failure to rise more quickly is his wrong education in the past; and, thirdly, that his future rise depends primarily on his own efforts. Each of these propositions is a dangerous half-truth. The supplementary truths must never be lost sight of: first, slavery and race-prejudice are potent if not sufficient causes of the Negro’s position; second, industrial and common-school training were necessarily slow in planting because they had to await the black teachers trained by higher institutions,—it being extremely doubtful if any essentially different development was possible, and certainly a Tuskegee was unthinkable before 1880; and, third, while it is a great truth to say that the Negro must strive and strive mightily to help himself, it is equally true that unless his striving be not simply seconded, but rather aroused and encouraged, by the initiative of the richer and wiser environing group, he cannot hope for great success.


    In his failure to realize and impress this last point, Mr. Washington is especially to be criticized. His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.



    [1] Du Bois published his most influential scholarly work, Black Reconstruction in America in 1935, which remains one of the most important works of American History ever published. I read it in graduate school, roughly seventy years after it was published. I usually link to, but Black Reconstruction has a 50 person waiting list for access to the book. It remains in high demand. This is an online PDF version of the digital copy. The PDF takes a while to load but it’s complete. In his book. Du Bois challenged the prevailing school of thought in historical analysis, called “The Dunning School.” William J. Dunning taught American History at Columbia University from 1888 until 1922, where he trained four generations of historians who went on to promulgate Dunning’s scholarship on Reconstruction. Dunning argued that Reconstruction was a Republican conspiracy to destroy the South and subjugate white southerners to northern capitalists and black men, enforced by Federal troops. The Dunning School – the graduate students who studied with him at Columbia – taught at colleges and universities around the country for the next six decades. Millions of students and hundreds of future historians learned Reconstruction as told by the Dunning School. It was not until the 1960s that historians started challenging the Dunning School with new analysis and interpretation. Du Bois, of course, published the blueprint for dismantling the Dunning School 30 years earlier, but he was dismissed as too biased to be taken seriously at the time.


    [2] W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (Chicago: McClurg Publishing, 1903). 

    [3] Why does he mention 1876? What happened in 1876, implemented in 1877?

    [4] Jefferson Davis was a US senator from Mississippi until southern secession, when he became President of Confederate States of America. Davis, along with Confederate General Robert E. Lee, quickly became anointed tragic heroes in Lost Cause mythology; thousands of memorials and statues to Davis and Lee remain throughout the United States, especially in the southern states.

    [5] Du Bois intentionally uses Andrew Carnegie’s language from the essay we read, On Wealth, published 14 years before this essay.

    [6] Remember Indian reformer, Merrill Gates: the highest right of a man is to be a man. A lot of concern about manhood lately.

    [7] Du Bois rejects the Goddess Columbia as the personification of America. Instead, manhood personifies the nation.

    [8] Read this paragraph again. Remember Du Bois died the day before the March on Washington in 1963, a protest demanding the same civil rights he argues for in this 1903 essay.

    Image: W.E.B. Du Bois photo from Library of Congress is believed to be in the public domain.

    "Sir I Will Thank You with All My Heart": Letters from the Great Migration

    "Sir I Will Thank You with All My Heart": 
    Letters from the Great Migration

    Hopefully you already read the previous collection of letters written home by African American migrants. This collection of letters comes from the same Journal of Negro History article published in 1919. These letters were not sent back to friends and family in the South, however. Many black southerners learned about opportunities in northern cities from the Black Press, most notably the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Many black southerners wrote directly to the newspapers asking for help getting to the North. The Defender actively encouraged African Americans to come to Chicago, and responded directly to as many letters as they could. Below are some of the letters sent to the Chicago Defender offices[1]. Like the previous set of letters, these are reprinted in their original form.


    Lutcher, La., May 13, 1917

    Dear Sir: I have been reading the Chicago defender and seeing so many advertisements about the work in the north I thought to write you concerning my condition. I am working hard in the south and can hardly earn a living. I have a wife and one child and can hardly feed them. I thought to write and ask you for some information concerning how to get a pass for myself and family. I dont want to leave my family behind as I cant hardly make a living for them right here with them and I know they would fare hard if I would leave them. If there are any agents in the south there havent been any of them to Lutcher if they would come here they would get at least fifty men. Please sir let me hear from you as quick as possible. Now this is all. Please dont publish my letter, I was out in town today talking to some of the men and they say if they could get passes that 30 or 40 of them would come. But they havent got the money and they dont know how to come. But they are good strong and able working men. If you will instruct me I will instruct the other men how to come as they all want to work. Please dont publish this because we have to whisper this around among our selves because the white folks are angry now because the negroes are going north.


    Natchez, Miss., Sept. 22–17

    MR. R. S. ABBOTT, Editor[2].

    Dear Sir: I thought that you might help me in Some way either personally or through your influence, is why I am worrying you for which I beg pardon.

    I am a married man having wife and mother to support, (I mention this in order to properly convey my plight) conditions here are not altogether good and living expenses growing while wages are small. My greatest desire is to leave for a better place but am unable to raise the money.

    I can write short stories all of which portray negro characters but no burlesque[3] can also write poems, have a gift for cartooning but have never learned the technicalities of comic drawing. these things will never profit me anything here in Natchez. Would like to know if you could use one or two of my short stories in serial form in your great paper they are very interesting and would furnish good reading matter. By this means I could probably leave here in short and thus come in possession of better employment enabling me to take up my drawing which I like best.

    Kindly let me hear from you and if you cannot favor me could you refer me to any Negro publication buying fiction from their race.

    Selma, Ala., May 19, 1917

    Dear Sir: I am a reader of the Chicago Defender I think it is one of the Most Wonderful Papers of our race printed. Sirs I am writeing to see if You all will please get me a job. And Sir I can wash dishes, wash iron nursing work in groceries and dry good stores. Just any of these I can do. Sir, who so ever you get the job from please tell them to send me a ticket and I will pay them. When I get their as I have not got enough money to pay my way. I am a girl of 17 years old and in the 8 grade at Knox Academy School. But on account of not having money enough I had to stop school. Sir I will thank you all with all my heart. May God Bless you all. Please answer in return mail.


    Port Arthur, Texas, 5/5th/17

    Dear Sir: Permitt me to inform you that I have had the pleasure of reading the Defender for the first time in my life as I never dreamed that there was such a race paper published and I must say that its some paper.

    However I can unhesitatingly say that it is extraordinarily interesting and had I know that there was such a paper in my town or such being handled in my vicinity I would have been a subscriber years ago.

    Nevertheless I read every space of the paper dated April 28th which is my first and only paper at present. Although I am greatfully anticipating the pleasure of receiving my next Defender as I now consider myself a full fledged defender fan and I have also requested the representative of said paper to deliver my Defender weekly.

    In reading the Defenders want ad I notice that there is lots of work to be had and if I havent miscomprehended I think I also understand that the transportation is advanced to able bodied working men who is out of work and desire work. Am I not right? with the understanding that those who have been advanced transportation same will be deducted from their salary after they have begun work. Now then if this is they proposition I have about 10 or 15 good working men who is out of work and are dying to leave the south and I assure you that they are working men and will be too glad to come north east or west, any where but the south.

    Now then if this is the proposition kindly let me know by return mail. However I assure you that it shall be my pleasure to furnish you with further or all information that you may undertake to ask or all information necessary concerning this communication.

    Thanking you in advance for the courtesy of a prompt reply with much interest.

    Bessemer, Ala., 5/14/17

    Sirs: Noticing and ad in Chicago Defender of your assitance to those desiring employment there I thought I mayhaps you could help me secure work in your Windy City. I’m a married man have one child. I have common school education, this is my hand write. I am presently employed as a miner has been for 14 years but would like a Change. I’m apt to learn would like to get where I could go on up and support myself and family. You know more about it than I but in your opinion could I make anything as pullman porter being inexsperienced? I’d be so grateful to U. to place me in something I’ve worked myself too hard for nothing. I’m sober and can adjust my life with any kind and am a quiet christian man. 


    New Orleans, April 22, 1917

    Dear Sir: under the head lines in the Chicago Defender of Saturday April 22–17 I red how some of us that goes up north are being treated. there is a few that have gone from this city north, and came back a few weeks. some say they came back on account of being to cold “The ohters Say they ware to pay so much to get work etc” I would like to go north. and would rather be in some place. other then Chicago or near Chicago. I am a union man“ but dont exspect to work at union only” there is a few of us union men that are planning to go north and Kindly please write me" all so I mail you one of my union cards hoping to heare from you soon I am respectfully, Yours.


    Memphis Tennessee April 23, 1917

    Gentlemen: I want to get in tuch with you in regard of good location & a job i am for race elevation every way. I want a job in a small town some where in north where I can receive verry good wages and where I can educate my 3 little girls and demand respect of intelegence. I prefer a job as cabinet maker or any kind of furniture mfg. if possible.Let me hear from you all at once please. State minimum wages and kind of work.Yours truly,


    Sherman, Ga., Nov. 28, 1916

    Dear Sir: This letter comes to ask for all infirmations concerning employment in your connection in the warmest climate. Now I am in a family of (11) eleven more or less boys and girls (men and women) mixed sizes who want to go north as soon as arrangements can be made and employment given places for shelter and so on (etc) now this are farming people they were raised on the farm and are good farm hands I of course have some experience and qualefication as a coman school teacher and hotel waiter and along few other lines.


    I wish you would write me at your first chance and tell me if you can give us employment at what time and about what wages will you pay and what kind of arrangement can be made for our shelter. Tell me when can you best use us now or later.


    Will you send us tickets if so on what terms and at what price what is the cost per head and by what route should we come. We are Negroes and try to show ourselves worthy of all we may get from any friendly source we endeavor to be true to all good causes, if you can we thank you to help us to come north as soon as you can.

    Sanford, Fla., April 27, 1917

    Dear sir. I have seen through the Chicago Defender that you and the people of Chicago are helping newcomers. I am asking you for some information about conditions in some small town near Chicago.


    There are some families here thinking of moving up, and are desirous of knowing what to expect before leaving. Please state about treatment, work, rent and schools. Please answer at some spare time.

    Anniston, Ala., April 23, 1917

    Dear sir: Please gave me some infamation about coming north i can do any kind of work from a truck gardin to farming i would like to leave here and i cant make no money to leave I must make enough to live one please let me here from you at once i want to get where i can put my children in schol.

    Cedar Grove, La., April 23, 1917

    Dear sir: to day I was advise by the defendent offices in your city to communicate with you in regards to the labor for the colored of the south as I was lead to beleave that you was in position of firms of your city & your near by surrounding towns of Chicago. Please state me how is the times in & around Chicago place to locate having a family dependent on me for support. I am informed by the Chicago Defender a very valuable paper which has for its purpose the Uplifting of my race, and of which I am a constant reader and real lover, that you were in position to show some light to one in my condition.


    Seeking a Northern Home. If this is true Kindly inform me by next mail the next best thing to do Being a poor man with a family to care for, I am not coming to live on flowry Beds of ease for I am a man who works and wish to make the best I can out of life I do not wish to come there hoodwinked not knowing where to go or what to do so I Solicite your help in this matter and thanking you in advance for what advice you may be pleased to Give I am yours for success. P.S. I am presently imployed in the I C RR[4]. Mail Department at Union Station this city.

    Brookhaven, Miss., April 24, 1917

    Gents: The cane growers of Louisiana have stopped the exodus from New Orleans, claiming shortage of labor which will result in a sugar famine[5].


    Now these laborers thus employed receive only 85 cents a day and the high cost of living makes it a serious question to live.


    There is a great many race people around here who desires to come north but have waited rather late to avoid car fare, which they have not got, isnt there some way to get the concerns who wants labor, to send passes here or elsewhere so they can come even if they have to pay out of the first months wages? Please done publish this letter but do what you can towards helping them to get away. If the R. R. Co. would run a low rate excursion they could leave that way. Please ans.

    Savannah, Ga., April 24, 1917

    Sir: I saw an advertisement in the Chicago Ledger where you would send tickets to any one desireing to come up there. I am a married man with a wife only, and I am 38 years of age, and both of us have so far splendid health, and would like very much to come out there provided we could get good employment regarding the advertisement.

    Fullerton, La., April 28, 1917

    Dear sir: I was reading about you was neading labor ninety miles of Chicago what is the name of the place and what R R extends ther i wants to come north and i wants a stedy employment ther what doe you pay per day i dont no anything about molding works but have been working around machinery for 10 years. Let me no what doe you pay for such work and can you give me a job of that kind or a job at common labor and let me no your prices and how many hours for a day.

    De Ridder, La., April 29, 1917

    Dear sir: there is lots of us southern mens wants transportation and we want to leave ratway as soon as you let us here from you some of us is married mens who need work we would like to bring our wife with us there is 20 head of good mens want transportation and if you need us let us no by return mail we all are redy only wants here from you there may be more all of our peoples wont to leave here and i want you to send as much as 20 tickets any way I will get you up plenty hands to do most any kind of work all you have to do is to send for them. looking to here from you. This is among uscollerd.

    Atlanta, Ga., April 30, 1917

    Dear Sir: In reading the Chicago Defender I find that there are many jobs open for workmen, I wish that you would or can secure me a position in some of the northem cities; as a workman and not as a loafer. One who is willing to do any kind of hard in side or public work, have had broad experience in machinery and other work of the kind. A some what alround man can also cook, well trained devuloped man; have travel extensively through the western and southern states; A good strong morial religious man no habits. I will accept transportation on advance and deducted from my wages later. It does not matter where, that is; as to city, country, town or state since you secure the positions. I am quite sure you will be delighted in securing a position for a man of this description. I’ll assure you will not regret of so doing. Hoping to hear from you soon.


    Houston, Tx. April 30, 1917

    Dear Sir: wanted to leave the South and Go any Place where a man will be any thing Except a Ker I thought would write you for Advise as where would be a Good Place for a Comporedly young man That want to Better his Standing who has a very Promising young Family.


    I am 30 years old and have Good Experience in Freight Handler and Can fill Position from Truck to Agt. would like Chicago or Philadelphia But I dont Care where so long as I Go where a man is a man.

    Beaumont, Texas, May 7, 1917

    Dear Sir: I see in one of your recent issue of collored men woanted in the North I wish you would help me to get a position in the North I have no trade 1 have been working for one company eight years and there is no advancement here for me and I would like to come where I can better my condition I woant work and not affraid to work all I wish is a chance to make good. I believe I would like machinist helper or Molder helper. If you can help me in any way it will be highly appreciate hoping to hear from you soon.


    [1] Emmett J. Scott, Letters of Negro Migrants, 1916-1919, in the Journal of Negro History, Vol 4, No 3, July 1919 (the entire journal is digitized if you are interested in seeing the other articles that are part of the Great Migration issue, including Woodson’s editorial about the project

    [2] Robert Abbott migrated from Georgia to Chicago around 1900, and started publishing the Chicago Defender in 1905. The Defender was by far the most widely read and influential black newspaper in the United States throughout the twentieth century. The newspaper “sponsored” hundreds of black southerners who wanted to move to Chicago. The Defender office on State Street were the first stop for many migrants in need of a place to stay, food, employment, and general assistance.

    [3] Burlesque refers to an exaggerated or campy interpretation of something.

    [4] Illinois Central Railroad.

    [5] White southerners did everything they could to stop the loss of essentially unpaid African American laborers to northern industrial jobs. Towns and cities banned the Chicago Defender and other black newspapers, patrolled train stations and major roads and physically prevents African Americans from leaving, threatened family members of migrants, and killed northern labor agents sent down South to recruit African American men to work industrial jobs. At the behest of wealthy sugar planters, local law enforcement ensured African Americans working in the sugar fields did not leave for the North. They shut down the train depots and arrested black men on the suspicion they might be leaving.

    Lynching at the Curve by Ida B. Wells

    Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right
    Ida B. Wells

    Lynching at the Curve

    Ida B. Wells


    Lynching refers to a murder at the hands of a vigilante mob without legal consequence, usually justified as necessary for public safety. Lynchings dramatically increased following the end of Reconstruction, peaking in the 1890s when over fifteen hundred people were lynched throughout the country. The majority of lynchings occurred in the southern states where domestic terrorism like lynching enhanced law enforcement. Any African American who challenged segregation or refused to engage in the demeaning behavior expected by white southerners faced the possibility of a public murder at the hands of an angry mob. Mississippi led the country in lynching – 581 lynchings between 1882-1968, followed by Georgia (531), Texas (493), Louisiana (391), and Alabama (347).


    The vast majority of lynching victims were black men, especially in the South. A significant number of black women were lynched as well, most accused of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a white man. Black men constituted the majority of lynchings in the rest of the country as well, although white men involved in the labor movement or identified (correctly or not) as communist or socialist were lynched in almost equal number. Outside of the 1890s, the worst year on record for lynching was 1919 – the year after World War I ended and the first Red Scare reached it height. It was also the year black veterans returned from fighting in Europe “to keep the world safe for democracy” and hoping for democracy at home.


    White southerners often justified lynchings as the only way to protect white womanhood. Black men were frequently accused after their deaths of having raped or sexually assaulted a white woman. In almost all cases, however, it was “a bare lie,” as Ida B. Wells wrote in a newspaper editorial in 1892. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, the year before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Her parents, both formerly enslaved, became active in Reconstruction politics, particularly the fledgling Republican Party in Mississippi. After her parents died when she was sixteen years old, Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee where she worked as a teacher and raised her three younger siblings. While in Memphis, she founded a newspaper called the Memphis Free Press. She frequently wrote articles and editorials in the Free Press shining light on the violence and lawlessness the black community faced in a segregated society.


    In 1892, Wells wrote a scathing editorial recounting the lynching of three of her friends at the hands of a white mob a few days earlier. In retaliation, a white mob burned her newspaper office and printing press to the ground while she was visiting Mississippi overnight. Fearing for her own life as well as her siblings, Wells moved to Chicago where she published a collection of her essays about lynching in the South based on her own research during the two years prior.


    Her book, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, was the first to describe the extended process of lynching from the accusations leveled at black men to the complicity of law enforcement. She also described a lynching in graphic detail. White northerners were shocked by her account, to the point where many did not believe they were as horrific as Wells’ description. “Lynching at the Curve,” the first essay in her book, made Wells’ a respected public intellectual, writer, and political activist on par with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Wells published her book in 1892, three years before Washington’s Atlanta Speech. Few people knew who Du Bois was in 1892 – he was at Harvard finishing his PhD when Wells’ fled Memphis for Chicago because of her book. Below is an excerpt from her groundbreaking essay.[1]



    While I was thus carrying on the work of my newspaper, happy in the thought that our influence was helping people and that I was doing the work I loved and had proved that I could make a living out of it, there came the lynching in Memphis which changed the whole course of my life.


    Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart owned and operated a grocery store in a thickly populated suburb. Moss was a letter carrier and could only be at the store at night. Everybody in town knew and loved Tommie. An exemplary young man, he was married and the father of one little girl, Maurine, whose godmother I was. He and his wife Betty were the best friends I had in town. And he believed, with me, that we should defend the cause of right and fight wrong whenever we saw it.


    He delivered mail at the office of the Free Speech, and whatever Tommie knew in the way of news we got first. He owned his little home, and having saved his money he went into the grocery business with the same ambition that a young white man would have had. He was the president of the company. His partners ran the business in the daytime.


    They had located their grocery in the district known as the “Curve” because the streetcar line curved sharply at that point. There was already a grocery owned and operated by a white man who hitherto had had a monopoly on the trade of this thickly populated colored suburb. Thomas's grocery changed all that, and he and his associates were made to feel that they were not welcome by the white grocer. The district being mostly colored and many of the residents belonging either to Thomas’s church or to his lodge, he was not worried by the white grocer’s hostility.


    One day some colored and white boys quarreled over a game of marbles and the colored boys got the better of the fight which followed. The father of the white boys whipped the victorious colored boy, whose father and friends pitched in to avenge the grown white man’s flogging of a colored boy. The colored men won the fight, whereupon the white father and grocery keeper swore out a warrant for the arrest of the colored victors. Of course, the colored grocery keepers had been drawn in to the dispute. But the case was dismissed with nominal fines. Then the challenge was issued that the vanquished whites were coming on Saturday night to clean out the People’s Grocery Company.


    …Accordingly, the grocery company armed several men and stationed them in the rear of the store on that fatal Saturday night, not to attack but repel a threatened attack. And Saturday night was the time when men of both races congregated in their respective groceries.[2] About ten o’clock that night, when Thomas was posting his books for the week and Calvin McDowell and his clerk were waiting on customers preparatory to closing, shots rang out in the back room of the store. The men stationed there had seen several white men stealing through the rear door and fired on them without a moment's pause. Three of these men were wounded, and others fled and gave the alarm.


    Sunday morning’s paper came out with lurid headlines telling how officers of the law had been wounded while in the discharge of their duties, hunting up criminals whom they had been told were harbored in the People’s Grocery Company, this being “a low dive in which drinking and gambling were carried on: a resort of thieves and thugs.”[3] So ran the description in the leading white journals of Memphis of this successful effort of decent black men to carry on a legitimate business. The same newspaper told the arrest and jailing of the proprietor of the store and many of the colored people. They predicted that it would go hard with the ringleaders if these “officers” should die. The tale of the peaceful homes of that suburb were raided on that quiet Sunday morning by police pretending to be looking for others who were implicated in what the papers had a conspiracy, has been often told. Over a hundred colored men were dragged from their homes and put in jail on suspicion.


    All day long on that fateful Sunday white men were permitted in the jail to look over the imprisoned black men. Frenzied descriptions and hearsays were detailed in the papers, which fed the fires of sensationalism. Groups of white men gathered on the street corners and meeting places to discuss the awful crime of Negroes shooting white men.


    There had been no lynchings in Memphis since the Civil War, but the colored people felt that anything might happened during the excitement[4]…The manhood which these Negroes represented went to the county jail and kept watch Sunday night. This they did also on Monday night, guarding the jail to see that nothing happened to the colored men during this time of race prejudice, while it was thought that the wounded white men might die. On Tuesday following, the newspapers which had fanned the flame of race prejudice announced that the wounded men would recover. The colored men who had guarded the jail for two nights felt that the crisis was past and that they need not guard the jail a third night.


    While they slept, a body of picked men was admitted to the jail, which was a modern Bastille[5]. The mob took out of their cells Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, the three officials of the People's Grocery Company. They were loaded on a switch engine of the railroad which ran back of the jail, carried a mile north of the city limits, and horribly shot to death. One of the morning papers held back its edition in order to supply its readers with the details of that lynching.


    From its columns was gleaned the above information, together with details which told that “It is said that Tom Moss begged for his life for the sake of his wife and child and his unborn baby;” that when asked if he had anything to say, told them to “tell my people to West – there is no justice for them here;” that Calvin McDowell got hold of one of the guns of the lynchers and because they could not loosen his grip a shot was fired into of McDowell’s right hand had been shot to pieces and his eyes were gouged out. This proved that the one who wrote that news report was either an eyewitness or got the facts from someone who was.


    The shock to the colored people who knew and loved both Moss and McDowell was beyond description. Groups of them went to the grocery and elsewhere and vented their feelings in talking among themselves, but they offered no violence. Word was brought the city hall that Negroes were massing at the “Curve” where the grocery had been located. Immediately an order was issued by the judge of the criminal court sitting on the bench, who told the sheriff to “take a hundred men, go to the Curve at once, and shoot down on sight any Negro who appears to be making trouble.”


    The loafers around the courts quickly spread the news, and gangs of them rushed into the hardware stores, armed themselves, boarded the cars and rushed out to the Curve.[6] They obeyed the judge’s orders literally and shot into any group of Negroes they saw with as little compunction as if they had been on a hunting trip. The only reason hundreds of Negroes were not killed on that day by the mobs was because of the forbearance of the colored men. They realized their helplessness and submitted to outrages and insults for the sake of those depending upon them.


    This mob took possession of the People's Grocery Company, helping themselves to food and drink, and destroyed what they could not eat or steal. The creditors had the place closed and a few days later what remained of the stock was sold at auction. Thus, with the aid of city and county authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to his rival Negro grocer as well as to his business


    Like many another person who had read of lynchings in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.


    But Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart had been lynched in Memphis, one of the leading cities of the South, in which no lynching had taken place before, with just as much brutality as other victims of the mob; and they had committed no crime against white women. This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and "keep the n----- down."


    I then began an investigation of every lynching I read about. I stumbled on the amazing record that every case of rape reported in that three months became such only when it became public. Many cases were like that of the lynching which happened in Tunica County, Mississippi. The Associated Press reporter said, "The big burly brute was lynched because he had raped the seven-year-old daughter of the sheriff." I visited the place afterward and saw the girl, who was a grown woman more than seventeen years old. She had been found in the lynched Negro's cabin by her father, who had led the mob against him in order to save his daughter's reputation. That Negro was a helper on the farm.


    In Natchez, Mississippi, one of the most beautiful homes of one of the leaders of society was pointed out to me. I was told the story of how the mistress of that home had given birth to a child unmistakably dark, and how her colored coachman left town on hearing the news. The Memphis Scimitar published the story of how a young girl who had made a mistake had been awaiting confinement in the home kind-hearted women provided for such cases; how she, too, had given birth to a colored child, and because she would not tell the name of her ‘rapist’ she was bundled out of the home to the public ward of the county hospital.


    I also had the sworn statement of a mother whose son had been lynched that he had left the place where he worked because of the advances made by the beautiful daughter of the house. The boy had fallen under her spell, and met her often until they were discovered and the cry of rape was raised. A handsome young mulatto, he too had been horribly lynched for “rape.” It was with these and other stories in mind in that last week in May 1892 that I wrote the following editorial:


    Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech. They were charged with killing white men and five with raping white women. Nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will overreach themselves and a conclusion will be drawn which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.[7]


    This editorial furnished at last the excuse for doing what the white leaders of Memphis had long been wanting to do: put an end to the Free Speech. The paper appeared the Saturday after I left home. On the following Monday morning the Commercial Appeal appeared, reproducing that editorial in the first column on the editorial page, and called on the chivalrous white men of Memphis to do something to avenge this insult to the honor of white women. “the black wretch who had written that foul lie should be tied to a stake of the corner of Main and Madison streets, a pair of tailor’s shears used on him and he should then be burned at the stake.”


    This editorial was written by a man named Carmack…the people of Memphis met in the Cotton Exchange Building the same Monday evening after the appearance of the heated editorial. There was much speech making, led by Mr. Carmack and others. As a result, a committee was sent to the Free Speech office by this gathering of leading men. This committee destroyed our type and furnishings, and then put of a notice of warning.[8]


    Having lost my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt that I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do so freely. Accordingly, the fourth week in June, the New York Age had a seven-column article on the front page giving names, dates and places of many lynchings for alleged rape. This article showed conclusively that my editorial in the Free Speech was based on facts of illicit association between black men and white women.


    Such relationships between white men and colored women were notorious, and had been as long as the two races had lived together in the South. This was so much a fact that such unions had bleached a large percentage of the Negro race, and filled it with the offspring of these unions. These children were and are known as mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons.


    Many stories of the antebellum South were based upon such relationships. It has been frequently charged in narrative of slave times that these white fathers often sold their mulatto and quadroon children…All my life I had known that such conditions were accepted as a matter of course. I found that this rape of helpless Negro girls and women, which began in slavery days, still continued without let or hinderance, check or reproof from church, state, or press until there had been created this race within a race – and all designated by the inclusive term of “colored.”


    I also found that what the white man of the South practiced as all right for himself, he assumed to be unthinkable in white women. They could and did fall in love with the pretty mulatto and quadroon girls as well as black ones, but they professed an inability to imagine white women doing the same thing with a Negro or mulatto men. Whenever they did so and were found out, the cry of rape was raised, and the lowest element of the white South was turned loose to wreak its fiendish cruelty on those too weak to help themselves.


    No torture of helpless victims by heathen savages or cruel red Indians ever exceed the cold-blooded savagery of white devils under lynch law. None of the hideous murders by butchers of Nero to make a Roman holiday exceeded these burnings alive of black human beings.[9] This was done by white men who controlled all the force of law and order in their communities and who could have legally punished rapists and murderers, especially black men who had neither political power nor financial strength with which to evade any justly deserved fate.


    Here came lynch law to stifle Negro manhood which defended itself, and the burning alive of Negroes who were weak enough to accept favors from white women. The many unspeakable and unprintable tortures to which Negro rapists(?) of white women were subjected were for the purpose of striking terror into the hearts of other Negroes who might be thinking of consorting with willing white women.


    The more I studied the situation, the more I was convinced that the Southerner had never gotten over his resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything, his servant, and his source of income. The federal laws for Negro protection passed during Reconstruction had been made a mockery by the white South where it had not secured their repeal. This same white South had secured political control of its several states, and as soon as white southerners came into power they began to make playthings of Negro lives and property. This still seemed not enough "to keep the nigger down."


    I found that in order to justify these horrible atrocities to the world, the Negro was being branded as a race of rapists, who were especially mad after white women. I found that whom men who had created a race of mulattoes by raping and consorting with Negro women were still doing so where ever they could, these same white men lynched, burned and tortured Negro men for doing the same thing with white women; even when the white women were willing “victims.”


    It seemed horrible to me that death in its most terrible forms should be meted out to the Negro who was weak enough to take chances when accepting the invitations of these white women; but that the entire race should be branded as moral monsters and despoilers of white womanhood and childhood was bound to rob us of all the friends we had and silence any protests that they might make for us.


    For all these reasons it seemed a stern duty to give the facts I had collected to the world…



    [1] Booker T. Washington donated a significant amount of money to Wells’ Anti-Lynching campaign. Du Bois recruited her to be one of the founding members of the NAACP. Nevertheless, both men – and many other African Americans – thought Wells too radical to be effective. During WWI, the brand-new Federal Bureau of Investigations placed her and her family (she married in 1895 and had four children while carrying on with her activism, writing, and publishing) under surveillance, labelling her a “race traitor.”

    Full text of Southern Horrors. Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was discovered and published in 1971, forty forty years after her death in 1931. Also the year nine African American teenagers were arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama for allegedly raping two white women. The young men ranged in age from thirteen to twenty, many of whom spent over two decades in jail, even after the women admitted they lied. The women admitted they lied; the black men stayed in jail anyway.

    [2] Here’s where the Vagrancy Law, now part of the segregation laws, were most effective. A group of men gathering on a Saturday night to play cards, have some drinks smoke some cigarettes, and generally relax for a short time. The same thing the men at the white grocery store were doing. Black men out on a Saturday night in Memphis, however, were subject to the same laws we read in the Black Codes, meaning they could be arrested just for being there.

    [3] The newspaper referred to the mob of white men as “officers of the law.”

    [4] While lynching was usually a public event, no one documented the murders as lynchings until Ida B. Wells published The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, in 1895, which contained fourteen pages of statistics related to lynching between 1892 (when the Memphis lynchings occurred) and 1895, as well as details about the people who were murdered.

    We know now that dozens of lynchings happened in Memphis following the Civil War, including a riot in 1866, which killed forty-six African Americans and two white people.

    [5] The Bastille was a medieval fortress (fortified castle) on the edge of Paris, France used as a prison during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

    [6] Train cars.

    [7] This is why many people – black and white – who supported Wells’ Anti-Lynching crusade, still considered her  too radical. Unlike Washington, Du Bois, or any other African American leader regardless of how respected they were, could never publicly hold white women accountable for their part in lynching. Wells, however, made her career on speaking truth to power regardless of the consequences.

    [8] Edward Carmack was editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal during the 1890s, and served as a US Senator from 1901-1907. In 1908, Carmack was shot in the street by rival newspaper editor Duncan Brown Cooper after Carmack shot Cooper’s son first. Cooper was pardoned, and the city of Memphis put a statue of Carmack in front of the statehouse that still stands today. Before any of that, however, Cormack responded to Wells’ Lynching at the Curve newspaper article with his own editorial. In it, he called for retaliation against Wells and her newspaper. Wells was lucky to get out of Memphis alive after Cormack’s call to action.


    [9] Nero was Emperor of Roman from 54-68 CE. Nero lived an extraordinarily lavish life, even by Roman Emperor standards. He would invite hundreds of people to one of his many palaces where they would indulge in just about every pleasure principle known (sex, drugs, alcohol, indulgent and often cruel activities). Nero was also a brutal dictator who demanded fealty from his family, friends, advisors, and subjects.  Four years before he committed suicide in 68, a massive fire broke out in Rome and destroyed whole sections of the city. The fire went on for weeks. After the fire subsided, Nero and his court undertook a massive rebuilding project, including a new palace for emperor Nero – the largest ever built by an Emperor. Many Romans accused Nero of letting certain parts of Rome burn down so he could reshape the city for his own needs. Critics claimed Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” so he could build his palace and other monuments to himself.  

    Image: Ida B. Wells from Library of Congress is belived to be in the public domain.