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The Truth Will Unite Us: Ida B. Wells and the Drama in England

Catherine Impey, publisher of Anti-Caste and co-founder (with Ida B. Wells) of the Anti-Lynching Society in the United Kingdom.

Catherine Impey, publisher of Anti-Caste and co-founder (with Ida B. Wells) of the Anti-Lynching Society in the United Kingdom.

Through Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells was introduced to Ms. Catherine Impey, an abolitionist Quaker woman from Street, Somersetshire, England. Impey published and edited Anti-Caste, an anti-racist pamphlet, with her sister, Ellen, and mother, Mary Hannah Impey. Impey had about 300 subscribers - most of them Quakers - in the United Kingdom, but printed about 1900 copies of each issue, so her subscribers could distribute them to churches and other organizations. For example, the YMCA distributed Anti-Caste in the United States. 1 She initially focused on racial inequality within the British Empire - and especially, as the name suggests, racial inequality in India - but later became interested in race issues in the United States, after visiting there in the 1870s. It was then, also, that she became friends with Frederick Douglass, who, in turn, introduced her to Wells.

Impey invited Wells to speak in England; Wells jumped at the chance to spread her anti-lynching message to the United Kingdom. Before the beginning of the tour, Impey and Wells sent out 10,000 copies of Anti-Caste. On the cover was the uncensored photograph of a lynching victim, surrounded by children; an image that would be considered shocking even today. Their rhetoric was a success; huge crowds turned up to hear Wells and the Dominican Methodist minister Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards speak.

Anti-Caste pamphlet with Frederick Douglas on the cover, April/May 1895.

Anti-Caste pamphlet with Frederick Douglas on the cover, April/May 1895.

While in England, Wells stayed in the home of Isabella Mayo, another prominent anti-racist and anti-lynching activist, who often took in and supported young foreign men of color. George Ferdinands, a Ceylonian (Sri Lankan) national, who later became a dentist, lived in Mayo’s home at the same time Wells was visiting.

Ferdinands was a known occultist,2 and may have assisted Wells and Impey in their founding of the Society Of The Universal Brotherhood Of Man. That organization was later enveloped by the Theosophical Society, a sort of new-age society founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, and William Quan Judge in 1875.

The Society's objectives:

  • To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
  • To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
  • To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man. 3

These are certainly noble objectives, but it is important to note that Aleistair Crowley took a strong interest in theosophy and later tried to take control of the Theosophical Society. Although he did not generally respect theosophists - theosophy’s followers were mainly women and Crowley was a known misogynist - Crowley had a deep respect for Madame Blavatsky and often said that it was significant that the Society was founded the same year he was born. Additionally, Thelema - the religion that Crowley founded - and Theosophy are often discussed as a monolith. A discussion that would, most likely, amuse, if not rile, Crowley.

  • Home - Theosophical Society in America
    The Theosophical Society in America encourages open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transforma
Helena Blavatsky, mother of Theosophy.

Helena Blavatsky, mother of Theosophy.

Aleistair Crowley, father of Thelema.

Aleistair Crowley, father of Thelema.

Circumstances soon took an odd turn. 4 One day, Ferdinands presented a letter to Mayo. The letter was from Catherine Impey, and in it, Impey had passionately declared her love for Ferdinands. She assumed he felt the same way.

Some have interpreted Impey’s actions as “white privilege,” and that it was her white privilege alone that inspired her to write the letter and expect her feelings to be requited. Others added that this exact behavior was what Wells had discussed in her anti-lynching literature, and that Impey’s actions proved the hypothesis that white women had an insatiable thirst for black men.

But let’s unpack this.

Questions, to which we shall never receive any answers, abound: Why on earth did Ferdinands show the letter to Mayo? It wasn’t a particularly “gentlemanly” thing to do. What did he hope to accomplish? Why didn’t he address/confront Impey with her letter in person, and put an end to it, without humiliating her? He was under no obligation to share this letter with anyone, and especially not with Mayo, so why did he share it?

Mayo’s reaction was disproportionately over the top. She was immediately enraged. She ranted that Impey had acted immorally. Mayo further stated that a woman Impey’s age - middle age, about 50 - could not, in good conscious, justify pursuing a man many years her junior (although Ferdinands would have been, at the time, in his mid 20s to early 30s).

Mayo then turned around and melodramatically shared the letter with anyone who would read it, then sent copies to Frederick Douglass, T. Thomas Fortune, editor of The Age, Judge Albion Tourgee, and the Bystander of the Chicago-Inter-Ocean. Her actions certainly did their movement, which was in its infancy, no favors. She then demanded that Wells, who was staying at her home at the time of the scandal, “choose” between her and Impey, a la modern day middle school drama. Wells ultimately refused to turn her back on Impey, her friend and benefactor, which greatly upset Mayo. It so upset her, and caused such a rift in their activist community, in fact, that Wells had to cut short her speaking tour and go home to Chicago earlier than planned.

Isabella Fyvie Mayo

Isabella Fyvie Mayo

Mayo’s indignation regarding the “immorality” of Impey’s behavior also seems misplaced. Yes, the British Colonies were rife with racism, but racial inequality in Britain was nothing like that in the United States. Ferdinands was in no danger of being lynched, if a consensual relationship between he and Impey were found out (if that myth were even true). A Ceylonian man spurning, instead of welcoming, the advances of a white women would only have confirmed he was truly a gentleman.

No one offered that perhaps Impey had simply fallen in love with this younger man of color. No one, that is, except Wells.

Unlike her English host and comrades, Wells seemed nonplussed by Impey’s affection for Ferdinands. Wells should have been, based on her own hypothesis, upset that this white, privileged woman (privileged by any standards) was pursuing this man of color. Her immediate reaction, however, was to stand by Impey. Wells even suggested that Impey was simply caught up in the moment - and in the movement - and had a momentary lapse in good judgement, during which she sent the scandalous letter professing her undying love for Ferdinands.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

Wells’ and Impey’s mutual friendship with Frederick Douglass may be the explanation for Wells’ ambivalence, but there is one more reasonable explanation: When faced with a real life situation, Wells could not muster the righteous indignation necessary to demonize a woman who was overcome by her emotions. Impey was Wells’ true friend and comrade, and Wells may have realized in that moment that Impey was just as susceptible to her emotions as any other woman.

There are a handful of wholly circumstantial clues that may explain why Mayo reacted so strongly to Impey’s advances towards Ferdinands. Isabella Mayo lost her husband 20 years prior, and never remarried. She and her husband had one son, who would have been about 20 at the time of the scandal. Additionally, Ferdinands lived with Mayo until she died. Of course, there is no hard proof, but Mayo’s over-the-top reaction, which legitimately threatened to destroy the anti-lynching movement in England, could have been the result of jealousy. Perhaps Mayo had strong feelings for, or perhaps a relationship with Ferdinands, and her reaction to the letter was that of a woman feeling that her “territory” was threatened.

It appears, though, that Impey was so humiliated by the incident that she stopped publishing Anti-Caste for a year. So apparently, Mayo's plan, whatever it may have been, worked. 5

1http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/362

2 https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/greenfact/green.html

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theosophical_Society

4 Preface, two versions, (5 p.); Chapters I through VI, (30 p.), Chapters VII through XVI (42 p.); "Shipmates on first voyage to England... Chapter 5 of my first writing" in pencil; newspaper clippings, 1893 (https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0001-007.pdf)

5 https://web.archive.org/web/20071012025920/http://www.historycooperative.org/ btw/Vol.3/html/34.html