LINDA O. MCMURRY
The lynchings of Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart in March 1892 were not significant for their rarity--that year at least 158 other African Americans were killed by angry mobs for alleged offenses against white society. The location of the lynchings in Memphis, Tennessee, was also not remarkable; seventeen other black Tennesseans were lynched that year and forty-six African Americans had been killed in an 1866 race riot in Memphis. The three deaths assumed a special importance mostly because of their impact on the young journalist, Ida B. Wells. She knew all three men and was godmother to Moss's daughter. Outraged by the murder of her friends, Wells mobilized her considerable talents and energies to battle the evil of mob violence. Thus began the perfect marriage of an individual and a cause.
Born to slave parents on 16 July 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells was the eldest of seven children. In 1878 her parents, James Wells and Lizzie Bell, and one sibling died in a yellow fever epidemic. Wells returned from Shaw (later Rust) University and rejected plans to divide the remaining children among friends and relatives. Instead, at the age of sixteen, she assumed responsibility for her brothers and sisters and became head of the household. She began teaching and eventually moved to Memphis, where she participated in the rich cultural life of the black elite. There she might have led a conventional life but for her temperament and a series of events.
The first event occurred on 4 May 1884, when a conductor asked Wells to leave the ladies' car of a train. She refused, then bit him on the hand when he sought to remove her forcibly, and finally sued the railroad. She won the suit, lost it on appeal, and launched her career as a journalist and a firebrand. Wells became a partner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. She also taught until 1891, when she was dismissed after criticizing the