In March 1892, a white mob lynched three black men — Thomas Moss, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell — and left their mangled bodies in a field a mile north of downtown Memphis.
The three men had not raped or offended a white woman, as was a common justification given for a lynching. Instead, their crime was their temerity. They dared to challenge white businessmen accustomed to having a monopoly on economic activity.
Moss, Stewart and McDowell were workers and co-owners of the People’s Grocery, a black-owned store just outside downtown Memphis, which was beginning to rival a nearby white-owned grocery store.
Tensions rose between the two stores, culminating in a shoot-out when a group of armed white men surrounded the People’s Grocery. After Moss, Stewart and McDowell were arrested, a white mob took them from their cells and killed them.
The men were friends of Ida B. Wells, a crusading anti-lynching journalist. In the months following her friends’ deaths, Wells set out to debunk the myth of black sexual predation and show that lynching was, in fact, a tool of economic terrorism and disenfranchisement.
“[The People’s Grocery Lynching] 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 nigger down’,” Wells wrote.
In the century following the People’s Grocery lynchings, violence and economics would become so entwined that today, they seem almost inseparable. Some of those lynched in Memphis and the surrounding area were people who dared to be their own boss, or to demand fair treatment, or who were so poor that they begged passersby for food. In many ways, these same people remain the most vulnerable today.
A look at our history of economic violence shows that legacy continued and is still alive and well in Memphis.
One year after the People’s Grocery lynching, a 20-year-old black man named Lee Walker was accused of attempting to assault two white women in Memphis. In her pamphlet “The Red Record,” Ida B. Wells described the alleged crime: “Two women driving to town in a wagon, were suddenly accosted by Lee Walker. He claimed that he demanded something to eat. The women claimed that he attempted to assault them.”
The women made a ruckus, and Walker ran away.
“No woman was harmed,” Wells wrote, “no serious indignity suffered.”
Even so, word quickly spread through Memphis that a black man had assaulted two white women.
Walker was eventually arrested and put in jail for the alleged crime. He denied ever assaulting the women who accused him, and the women were not given a chance to identify him. He was taken out of the jail by a mob and lynched, his body left hanging on a telephone pole downtown. The gruesome details were recounted in the Memphis Commercial the following day:
“The Negro died hard. The neck was not broken, as the body was drawn up without being given a fall, and death came by strangulation. For fully ten minutes after he was strung up the chest heaved occasionally and there were convulsive movements of the limbs. Finally he was pronounced dead, and a few minutes later Detective Richardson climbed on a pile of staves and cut the rope. The body fell in a ghastly heap, and the crowd laughed at the sound and crowded around the prostrate body, a few kicking the inanimate carcass.”
It is doubtful that Walker committed any crime. Rather, he was impoverished, hungry, and bold enough to ask for help.
In the yearlong anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, there has been plenty of conversation about the way Memphis has or has not changed over the course of the past half-century.
But 124 years after Walker was lynched after begging for food, Memphis remains a place where panhandling is prohibited and poverty is criminalized.
In the 50 years after the People’s Grocery lynching, the United States fought its way through the First World War and the Great Depression. In many ways, the country might have seemed like a different place a half-century later. But in the South, according to the 1933 book “The Tragedy of Lynching,” someone had been “hanged or buried alive every four days from 1889 to 1929.”
So in 1939, when Jesse Lee Bond walked into a general store in Arlington, Tennessee, purchased some supplies, and asked for a receipt, it was like no time had passed at all.
Bond was a sharecropper, an occupation that guaranteed low wages and permanent debt. General stores like S.Y. Wilson’s recorded sharecroppers’ purchases in a ledger, and after the fall harvest, sharecroppers tried to pay back what the store claimed they owed. In this system, there was no way for a sharecropper like Bond to escape the debts that often rolled over from one season to the next.
When Bond requested a receipt, he might not have seen it as challenging an entire system, advocating for his economic independence, or subtly accusing the store owner of exaggerating sharecroppers’ debts, stealing their wages, and exploiting their labor. But he was punished accordingly.
The day after Bond’s request for a receipt, he was shot multiple times, castrated and thrown into the Loosahatchie River. His death certificate ruled his cause of death was an “accidental drowning.”
April 28 will mark the 79th anniversary of the lynching of Jesse Lee Bond in Arlington. July 22 will mark the 125th anniversary of the lynching of Lee Walker north of downtown Memphis. The Lynching Sites Project of Memphis hopes to commemorate both sites with historic markers.
In their 2015 book “Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence,” sociology professors Amy Kate Bailey and Stewart E. Tolmay sought to identify traits that made someone more likely to be a victim of lynching. In particular, they considered whether social status had an effect.
Though they initially wondered whether being on one end of the economic spectrum or the other made one more likely to be a victim of lynching, Bailey and Tolmay discovered the most dangerous trait overall was to stand out from the crowd.
“Standing out as an exception within the general African American population had an important influence on the targeting of lynch victims by Southern mobs,” they wrote.
“African American men were exposed to the greatest risk of mob violence when their personal characteristics marked them as different from the larger black populations.”
Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Will Stewart must have stood out as black entrepreneurs competing against a white-owned store.
And Jesse Lee Bond’s request for a receipt — a sharecropper demanding just a bit of economic agency and independence — ultimately put a target on his own back.
As for Lee Walker, some have speculated that he was transient, perhaps experiencing homelessness. The strongest evidence for this might be found in the Memphis Death Register, which lists the names of the dead, their cause of death and their Term of Residence, or the length of time they’d spent in Memphis. For many, the word listed here in looped cursive is Life. But Walker is described as a “stranger.”
In a city where three black businessmen were killed for daring to run a prosperous grocery store, where a poor black man was lynched for asking for food, and where a black sharecropper was lynched for demanding some agency over his own finances, we can’t ignore the way these entwined threats of economic disenfranchisement and violence are as present in the fabric of our daily life as they’ve ever been.
In 2018, the success of black-owned businesses is still lagging in Memphis. In 2016, although African-Americans made up 63 percent of the city’s population, and owned 56 percent of the city’s businesses, black-owned businesses received less than 1 percent of total business receipts city-wide.
According to the 2017 Poverty Fact Sheet, compiled by University of Memphis professor Dr. Elena Delavega, Memphis remains the poorest metropolitan area of its size. Poverty is on the rise in Memphis, even as poverty rates decline across the country.
Delavega’s 2018 Poverty Report showed that even though there have been gains in education and a 650% increase in black employment in white-collar jobs, “income for African Americans remain stubbornly at about 50% of whites in Shelby County.
Economics led to the People’s Grocery lynching, and economics played a part in the response of black Memphians.
Wells happened to be in Natchez, Mississippi, on the night of the People’s Grocery lynching. Her friend Tom Moss was already buried by the time she got back to Memphis. Newspapers reported that Moss’ last words were, “Tell my people to go West. There is no justice for them here.”
After the lynching, Wells’ newspaper, Free Speech, printed an editorial that urged black readers to “save our money and leave a town which 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.”
According to Wells, “Hundreds disposed of their property and left.”
A frustrated white streetcar worker confronted Wells, complaining that black readers of the Free Speech had stopped riding the streetcar in order to save money to escape the city.
“Every time word came of people leaving Memphis,” Wells wrote, “we who were left behind rejoiced.”
In the months following the People’s Grocery lynching, Wells published an editorial in the Free Speech, calling out the myth of black sexual predation: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.”
Instead, Wells argued, many of these relationships were consensual: “If Southern white men are not careful,” she determined, “they will overreach themselves… a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
The Daily Commercial ran an editorial in response, claiming, “The fact that this black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. But we have had enough of it.”
Wells was not in Memphis that night, or else she might have been lynched herself. But a mob of white men did ransack Wells’ office, destroying the Free Speech headquarters. Unable to go after the woman herself, the mob went after the next best thing: her business, her investment, her voice.
In her autobiography, Wells wrote, “They had destroyed my paper, in which every dollar I had in the world was invested.”
In response, she said, “I felt that I owed it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth.”
As Memphis seeks to commemorate 50 years since Martin Luther King’s assassination here, it is important to remember that economic violence brought King to Memphis in the first place.
When King traveled to Memphis in March 1968, he spoke to a crowd that included the striking sanitation workers whose efforts he supported: “You are reminding not just Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
On the night King spoke to the striking sanitation workers, a month before his death, he referenced the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. King explained that the rich man went to hell not because of his wealth, but because he never really saw Lazarus, a homeless man who lived outside his gates, begging passersby for food.
“And I come here to say that America too is going to hell,” King said, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”
A month later, on a return trip to Memphis, King was assassinated. He was killed as he turned his eye toward poverty, labor, and wages. And in the light (however dim) of our history, it’s hard not to see King’s assassination as anything but another lynching.
In King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community,” he contrasted the national value of black businesses with their value to the black community:
“The economic highway to power has few entry lanes for Negroes. Nothing so vividly reveals the crushing impact of discrimination and the heritage of exclusion as the limited dimensions of Negro business in the most powerful economy in the world. America’s industrial production is half of the world’s total, and within it the production of Negro business is so small that it can scarcely be measured on any definable scale.
“Yet in relation to the Negro community the value of Negro business should not be underestimated. In the internal life of the Negro society it provides a degree of stability. Despite formidable obstacles it has developed a corps of men of competence and organizational discipline who constitute a talented leadership reserve, who furnish inspiration and who are a resource for the development of programs and planning. They are a strength among the weak though they are weak among the mighty.”
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death on April 4. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.