After three of her friends were lynched in March 1892, Ida B. Wells became an outspoken activist against white vigilantes’ frequent murders of black people and terrorism of black communities. A 29-year-old black schoolteacher in Memphis, Tennessee, Ms. Wells was editor and co-owner of a local black newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight. She used the newspaper as a forum to share information she gathered about recent lynchings and to reject the dominant justification for lynching as white manhood’s appropriate response to the rape of white women by black men. Instead, Ms. Wells found that most black lynching victims were killed for minor offenses or non-criminal transgressions such as failing to pay debts, public drunkenness, challenging whites’ economic dominance, or engaging in consensual interracial romance.
On May 21, 1892, Ms. Wells published an editorial challenging the idea that lynching was meant to protect white womanhood. “Nobody in this section of the country,” she wrote, “believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.” Memphis’s white newspapers denounced Ms. Wells’s editorial, deriding her as a “black scoundrel” and fanning local white outrage. On May 27, 1892, while Ms. Wells was in Philadelphia, a white mob attacked and destroyed her newspaper’s office and threatened her with bodily harm if she returned to Memphis. She did not return and eventually settled in Chicago, where she remained an advocate of racial justice and vocal opponent of lynching until her death in 1931.