Skip to main content

The Truth Will Unite Us: Ida B. Wells and The People's Grocery

Please note: Further research has uncovered important information regarding the criminal activity of the owners of the People's Grocery and other details about this incident. This new information will be added without editing the original article.

The information is included in its entirety at the end of this hub.

Historic photo of the People's Grocery.

Historic photo of the People's Grocery.

On Wednesday, March 9, 1892, fate once again interjected itself into Ida B. Wells’ life.

Thomas Moss, owner of the People’s Grocery, and two of his employees were lynched over what was essentially a business rivalry gone very, very wrong.

The Peoples Grocery was owned and operated by eleven African American men. Ever since it had opened in The Curve, it had taken away a substantial amount of business from the white business owner across the street, William Barrett. Barrett, the white grocer who prompted the lynching, ran a gambling den and sold liquor illegally through his store. He was essentially a mob boss who didn’t want want his cash flow threatened. Thomas Moss - and the People’s Grocery - was that threat.

The black community now shopped at the Peoples Grocery. One could even hypothesize that, because of Mr. Barrett's criminal activity, some white people - prohibitionists, in particular - would have gladly patronized the store that wasn't selling illegal alcohol and that didn't have illegal gambling as a parallel income stream. (Please see new information at the end of this hub.)

The Peoples Grocery most likely pilfered a good number of black and white customers from Barrett’s business, which couldn't have gone unnoticed. And, as criminals are wont to do, instead of making his own business better or more competitive, Barrett took advantage of the first available opportunity to destroy the Peoples Grocery. (Please see new information at the end of this hub.)

People's Grocery historic marker site, 2018.

People's Grocery historic marker site, 2018.

In March 1892, racial tensions were already high in Memphis.

Two boys - one white, one black - got in a fight over a game of marbles outside the Peoples Grocery. The white boy’s father stepped in to “defend” his son by beating the tar out of the black boy. Two black store workers from the People’s Grocery came to the aid of the black child, which led to, of course, more and more black and white men joining the fight. And guess who just happened to get a club to the head, but the infamous Mr. Barrett. While I’m sure Mr. Barrett was loath to notify the police of his own illegal activities, as a strict opportunist he wasted no time in contacting the police to tell them he had just been clubbed over the head by one of the black owners of the Peoples Grocery.

Important Aside that May Seem Irrelevant But Will Soon Become Clear: No woman, by the way, instigated, intensified, or worsened this fight. While there is no doubt that a handful of women witnessed - or maybe even cheered for one side or the other - they were not active participants in this this knock-down, drag-out street fight.

"In the Hands of the Mob."

"In the Hands of the Mob."

"Scene of the Lynching Looking East Towards Cubbin's Brick Yard."

"Scene of the Lynching Looking East Towards Cubbin's Brick Yard."

Barrett, being the upstanding member of the community that he was, took an officer to the Peoples Grocery, where he promptly hit a store worker, Calvin McDowell, over the head with a pistol, after which he lost control of the weapon and it fell to the floor. Most likely fearing for his life, McDowell grabbed the pistol and fired at Barrett, but missed.

McDowell was, predictably, arrested, but soon made $500 bail. Shortly after, a warrant was issued for Will Stewart and even Armour Harris, the black child who fought with the white child over a game of marbles. The warrants, understandably, enraged the black community; there were calls from the black community to rid the neighborhood of its “white trash.” Using this supposed “conspiracy” within the black community as an excuse to participate in violence, a mob of white men descended on the Peoples Grocery. Several in the mob were undercover (a la “plain clothes”) police officers, although no facts suggest they were there on behalf of the Memphis Police Department (MPD). Everything does suggest, however, that they planned not to infiltrate the mob with the intent to prosecute the instigators later, but rather to carry out extra-curricular violence against black men in the Peoples Grocery, violence that was neither officially sanctioned nor approved by the MPD.

"An Incident of the Race Conflict in the South."  Cover of The Graphic Chicago, March 26, 1892, depicting the lynch mob entering the People's Grocery.

"An Incident of the Race Conflict in the South." Cover of The Graphic Chicago, March 26, 1892, depicting the lynch mob entering the People's Grocery.

Scroll to Continue

A group of black men anticipated a lynch mob and armed themselves, and awaited the arrival of the lynch mob at the back of the store. When the lynch mob entered the store, they defended themselves.

And that was, objectively, what they were doing. They had no reason to think that this was anything but a lynch mob, and they had every right to arm and defend themselves against that mob.

When the mob entered the Peoples Grocery, the black men opened fire. Of course, some of the “plain clothes” police officers were among the injured - no whites were killed - during the exchange of gunfire. Seeing that the Peoples Grocery was well-defended, the mob retreated to Barrett’s store, which was located across the street. The plain clothes officers alerted the police that black men were shooting at police officers, and police immediately descended upon the store and arrested Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell.

Still clinging to the possibility of an actual “conspiracy” of blacks to harm whites, hundreds of white men were deputized and cast out into the world in an effort to bring the imaginary conspirators to justice. In all, 40 black people were arrested, including Armour Harris and his mother, Nat Trigg. Thomas (Tommie) Moss was also arrested; he claimed to have been in the back room of the store doing paperwork during the attack, escaping through a back door when the gunfire started.

Everyone, however, assumed that, because he was, after all, a postmaster and President of the Peoples Grocery co-op, that he was most likely the ringleader of the incident.

L to R: Ida B. Wells, Maureen Moss, Mrs. Betty Moss, and Tom Moss, Jr., taken about two years after the lynching.

L to R: Ida B. Wells, Maureen Moss, Mrs. Betty Moss, and Tom Moss, Jr., taken about two years after the lynching.

Four days later, dozens of angry, masked white men surrounded the jail. They alerted reporters to the action in advance; several were on hand to record every grisly detail of the lynching. Nine of those men forced their way into the jail and kidnapped Moss, Stewart and McDowell, dragged them about a mile out of town to the railroad yard, and shot them so many times that there wasn’t much of their bodies left. It was, truly, an outrage.

An outrage that - AGAIN! - had nothing to do with rape or white women.

Wells was best friends with the Moss family; she was godmother to the Moss children. She was out of town when the lynching occurred; delayed news of the murders enraged her.

Over the next couple months, it was clear that none of the murderers would be brought to justice. The Free Speech urged the black community of Memphis to boycott white businesses and the street car. The boycott was wildly successful, and it had the white community - and especially the street car company - disavowing any connection to the lynching and pleading for someone - anyone - to call off the boycott. Basically, the boycott had Memphis crying uncle.

Memphis was a powder keg, and Wells resolved to blow it up.

People's Grocery Historical Marker.  The original building has been demolished.

People's Grocery Historical Marker. The original building has been demolished.

New information recently discovered, which paints a different picture of the incident:


"In that section of Memphis known as "the Curve," at the corner of Mississippi and Walker avenues, there were two low and disreputable dives operated under the outwardly respectable guise of grocery stores. One of these dens was "run" by a white man by the name of W. R. Barrett, the other by a mulatto by the name of Calvin McDowell. Between these two men there had sprung up bitter hatred for each other and their quarrels had become a disgrace and a standing menace to the peace of the neighborhood. Both places were the resort of roughs, toughs, dangerous gamblers and drunkards who made that locality a blot on common decency and a cess-pool of outrageous immoralities. These alleged stores were the legitimate fruit, the logical and natural sequence of that damnable curse - the unlicensed, unbridled and irresponsible "corner grocery," where villainous whisky is sold to villainous creatures of both sexes and from whose door there pours a stream of poison, crime and moral degradation and death through all the city. That stream still flows!

"The feud between the Caucasian, Barrett, and the semi-African, McDowell, grew apace. Barrett had been sent to the workhouse by the criminal court judge, for a season and had he been kept there it is probable that this story would never have been written. The respectable people in that neighborhood grew alarmed at the growing lawlessness and predictions of trouble, bloodshed and murder were freely made. So uneasy, in fact, did these good citizens become that they determined to take preventive steps, it possible, to avert the bursting of the brewing storm and to clean their neighborhood of the pestiferous and dissolute gang of loafers and "crap" gamblers. But to what branch of the law could they appeal for help with assurance of relief? The police force of the city was either powerless or criminally indifferent; the law officers of the State were as the municipal officials and so lawlessness ran rampant and besotting crime and boastful criminals held unchecked carnival at the "Curve." It was "a pocket edition of hell," an epitome of "Darkest London." The officers had been warned that trouble of a serious character was likely to break forth at any moment. Deputy Sheriff Perkins one day received a note from an attache of the Evening Scimitar that stated the negroes at the "Curve" were holding secret meetings and plotting and planning an outbreak of some kind. The officer visited McDowell's place but could discover no sign of trouble. He was convinced and still maintains that the fears of the writer of that note were groundless. The whole trouble lay between Barrett and McDowell.

"The then occupant of the bench of the Criminal Court of Shelby county was Judge J. J. DuBose. He had issued a bench warrant for the arrest of Will Stewart, one of the men who "hung out" at McDowell's grocery. This was on March 6, 1892. That night Deputy Sheriffs Perkins, Pat McGuire, Charlev Cole, Bob Barnard. W. S. Richardson, Will App, Webber Harold and Clarence Moore, armed to the teeth, went to McDowell's store to arrest Stewart. The officers anticipated trouble and took no chances. When they arrived at the store a demand was made for Stewart. There were several negroes present and all rushed to a rear room. The deputies followed and when they got in the room they faced leveled guns in the hands of desperate negroes. Then the firing began on the officers, the ring-leader of the negroes being Isaiah, alias "Shang," Johnson Deputy Cole was badly wounded; in fact, it was thought he mortally wounded; Deputy Bob Harold was also wounded as was Avery Yerger. Then followed the arrest of Will Stewart, Calvin McDowell, Tom Moss and "Shang" Johnson. They were taken to the county jail and locked up. On the way to the jail "Shang" Johnson told Deputy Perkins that he would tell all about the plots of the gang and for that reason he begged not to be put in the same cell or apartment of the jail with the other three prisoners as they would kill him. The officer put Johnson in the woman's department and that saved this negro from the mob.

"On the night of the eighth of March - so shows the record of the Criminal Court - but it was in the early hours of the ninth day, a mob, or rather a squad, of not more than eight men called at the jail. The jailer was Lewis Williams, the night watchman was Tom O’Donnell. It was after midnight. There was no sound in all the city. Within the thick walls and steel cells of the jail sleep had fallen on all the inmates save two men - O'Donnell and an ex-deputy sheriff who had been indicted for a miserable little crime. These two men were seated in the lobby of the jail conversing, when the bell rang and before its tintinnabuIations had ceased a voice was heard asking for the night watchman.

""We have caught another of the 'Curve' rioters and want to put him in jail," said the voice.

"This is O'Donnell's story.

"I went to the gate to admit the voice and the men with it," continues this very veracious (?) watchman. "I saw a man with a black face, who I thought at first was the prisoner. Then, I saw, maybe, six other men with masks on their faces. I reached for my gun in my hip pocket but the men covered me with their guns and said, 'No, you don't.'

"They crowded into the yard, then rushed into the jail and demanded the key to the cells. I told them I did not have the keys. They searched my pockets but did not find them. Two of the men stood guard over me while the others went out to hunt for the keys. They found them on a table in the office under a newspaper."

"A story that hasn't the shadow of plausibility about it, taken in connection with what followed. The squad left this brave night watchman and went on a search through the jail for the men they wanted. Could this search have been made so noiselessly that it would not arouse the jailer, Williams, who was sleeping in the jail ? That seems impossible. Was there any outcry or attempt to give alarm on the part of O'Donnell ? None whatever. He simply sank exhausted with an overload of quiet submission, into his chair, and meekly held his peace. Not far from him was Williams, but he never went to his superior officer's room to tell him of the visit and demand of these assassins until they had gotten their victims and murdered them a mile away from the jail !

"The sheriff of Shelby county at that time was A. J. McLendon. Where was he on that night ? Down in Mississippi he says. Did he know or suspect that this raid would be made on the jail ? He says he did not. Was there any attempt ever made to ferret out the perpetrators of this assault on the law and the butchery of three men in the keeping of the law, locked in a jail from which escape is impossible ?

"None whatever !

"These three victims of the gory savagery of a few men were not charged with a crime for which death is the penalty. They had not been tried even before that unique and singularly endowed tribunal known as a justice of the peace court. They were merely "suspects" and innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty. The place of their execution was in an old field a mile north of the jail. The manner of their execution was peculiarly horrible, they having been shot so many times as to give wretched and revolting evidence of the absolute and Apache-like fiendishness of their executioners.

"The Judge of the Criminal Court at the time of this butchery was J. J. DuBose. What effort did he make to bring to punishment these lynchers ?

"Not one. Calmly, as though no great crime had been committed within a little distance of the supposedly sacred tribunal over which he presided, he kept the even tenor of his way, giving no official recognition of the deed, and no evidence to the world that his hand was holding the power that, properly used, is a defense to the humblest citizen against the vicious and cruel hand of the murderer, the mob or the despoiler of the fireside. The indifference thus shown by the man who was honored with a position and clothed with an authority that is majestic in its reach and grasp, boded no good to society. It was pregnant with rapine, anarchy and all the unleashed furies of hell. But though this judge forgot what the great Burke said in his speech in the impeachment of Warren Hastings that - "There is but one law for all : namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity; the law of Nature and of nations,"

"There swiftly came to him a realization of the truth of these words from Ben Jonson's "Cataline":

"The gods

Grow angry with your patience; 'tis their care,

And must be yours, that guilty men escape not.

As crimes do grow, justice should rouse itself,"

"For the outraged honor of the State of Tennessee arraigned this Judge before the bar of judgment and after a fair and impartial trial stripped him of his judicial robes and said to the world that he was unworthy to sit in judgment upon one of her tribunals of law and justice. Charges of all sorts and degrees had been preferred against the complacent Judge, piling up against him like Pelion on Ossa and when the verdict of the Senate of the State Legislature was rendered it made declaration that the man who would wear the ermine of a Tennessee judge must wear it as stainless as the unsullied robe of the vestal virgin.

"But what of the other officers of the Criminal Court, Attorney General George B. Peters and Sheriff A. J. McLendon ? Simply this: Confronted by the indifference of the Judge they could do nothing in hunting down the butchers of these three negroes. Did they try ? It is not so recorded. Was there a political pressure, the menacing threat of a secret, but all-powerful clan, standing across their path that gave pause and halt and flight to their initial steps towards apprehending the Criminals ? Did the edict of certain death to their future political and official aspirations if they persisted in uncovering this midnight crime hang over them like the sword of Damocles ? They are brave men; morally and physically both are courageous and it can hardly be believed that any form of threat or intimidation would deter them from doing their duty and keeping inviolate their sacred oaths. Why, then, did they not pursue the game and run it to cover? The real answer cannot here be given. Let this simple statement stand as an explanation, unsatisfactory as it may seem: They were baffled at every turn; they listened to the voice of a public sentiment that was at once foolish, hurtful and criminal in its logical sequence.

"The night after the "riot" at the "Curve" the respectable citizens of that neighborhood, regardless of age, color or previous condition of servitude, held an indignation meeting and wound up by passing a series of red hot resolutions in which the delectable Barrett and his dive were metaphorically roasted, as was also the wretched official policy of the city which gave birth and fostering care to such breeding pools of vice and degradation and trouble and infamy. Upon Barrett this meeting laid the responsibility for the bloodshed of the night previous. But the man with a political pull is a power !" 1


#bhm #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackHistory #bhm #feb #february #american #blacklivesmatter #blackpeople @coreybooker @kamalaharris

© 2018 Carrie Peterson

Related Articles