Exhibiting Impact: What I Learned from the Fayette County Civil Rights Movement

By Amy Ruggaber

It is my philosophy as an artist that EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL AND A STORY TO HEAR.  Working on the Uplift the Vote exhibit and telling the story of Fayette County and Tent City was an education and a privilege.  Rarely do artists get to see the continued impact of their work, and yet, in this case, I did.

Amy Ruggaber, Curator Uplift the Vote Exhibit

I had to do maintenance on the exhibit weekly, so I would work quietly to one side while also being able to watch the interaction of the public with the tent. Occasionally I would see students stop and scan the panels on the exhibit, often while listening to their earbuds. Slowly the buds would come off, and the music would be stopped as the students were drawn farther into the narrative. Often the phone shifted purpose from music to camera, and the students would take pictures of the panels or specific images.  A few times I even witnessed a student pulling their friends into the exhibit, excitedly pointing out a person in a photo: “I know her!” I would hear. Either way, in that moment, history had become REAL. Tangible. Familiar.  This was and is where history and contemporary issues meet.

Uplift the Vote Exhibit Displayed in the Rotunda of the Ned McWherter Library. Fall 2018.

We need to know the value of our vote and the costs associated with it.  We cannot take it for granted.  That is why I am so thrilled that the Uplift the Vote exhibit is currently being hosted by the Fayette County Public Schools.  On display in one of the local schools, the children and grandchildren of these activists and those who opposed them will be able to study the movement and see documentation of the historic impact of the actions of their elders.  The community at large will be able to come and reflect on the challenges of their past and how it relates to the issues of present day.  As for me, I am looking forward to once again being a witness to the impact of the work.


Exhibit, “Uplift the Vote: Everybody Should Have A Voting Story”

Fayette County Public Schools Central Administration Building,10425 Hwy 76 S. Somerville, TN 38068

February 7 – March 7, 2019, Monday through Friday from 12 pm to 4 pm. The exhibit will be open on the following Saturdays: February 9, and 16, and March 2, 2019, 10 am to 2 pm.

The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis and Fayette County Public Schools, Somerville, Tennessee invites you to experience “Uplift the Vote: Everyone Should Have a Voting Story,” a dual exhibit on the importance of our most basic civil right – the right to vote. Explore through photographs, documents and reflections, how African Americans’ demand for the right to vote in Fayette County, Tenn., in 1959 changed the lives of activists, the community and the nation through the exhibit. Then, prepare yourself for your own civic participation and learn how to register to vote in Tennessee. This exhibit is intended to educate and encourage citizens to exercise the right to vote, hard-won by African Americans and others.

Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM

By Roxane Coche, PhD

“Memphis had African Americans who refused to be silent although their lives might have been threatened. […] There was always this sense of strength and empowerment, um, in the lives and on the minds of African Americans here in Memphis.” 

Beverly Robertson, Greater Memphis Chamber interim CEO

“Something is happening in Memphis. Something is happening in our world.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have continued to echo throughout Memphis since 1968. Activism is still alive in Memphis and has gone from picket signs to hashtags.

In Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM, about 20 local activists and officials reflect on the past fifty years in Memphis, discussing the impact of both activism and the city’s history on the lives of African Americans today.

The one-hour film will premiere on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, 6:30 p.m., in the theatre of the University Center.

One unique aspect of the documentary is that it was completed thanks to the involvement of University of Memphis students. They conducted the majority of the oral history interviews featured in the film, and a few of them have also been involved with the production of the documentary itself.

The production of the film started as the city celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Our students took two special-topics courses, in different disciplines, to explore how the local movements for civil rights and social justice have evolved since the 1960s. A history class in Fall 2017, Memphis and the Movement, provided students with the deep context to ask the right questions and find the best answers, and the Spring 2018 journalism course, Reporting Social Justice, provided training in oral history interviewing techniques.

Our students interviewed about a dozen local activists in Spring 2018. Thanks to a grant from the University of Memphis, we were able to fund student worker and graduate assistant positions for Summer and Fall 2018, which allowed us to conduct even more interviews. Overall, we interviewed about 30 local activists of all ages about their personal experience in the civil rights and social justice movements that have shaped our city.

With more than 25 hours of interview material, selecting the quotes that would make the final cut of a one-hour documentary was no easy feat. Some valued activists and many excellent comments had to be left out for us to reach a concise storyline. In the film, our interviewees explain activism in the city from Dr. King’s assassination to MLK50, the 50th anniversary of his assassination, how activism in Memphis compares to the rest of the US, and what work remains to be done.

A grant from Humanities Tennessee and further support from the Hooks Institute have allowed us to use some professional footage in the documentary, but we have also relied on social media videos, which, as Hooks Institute Executive Director Daphene McFerren says in the film, help “highlight issues, highlight discrimination, address discrimination” in our society.

We are excited to premiere the film at the University of Memphis the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the film Once More at the River: From MLK to BLM is only one step of an ongoing story. All of our oral history interviews will soon be archived in the National Civil Rights Museum and in the Special Collections Department of the McWherter Library on the University of Memphis campus, and our website includes a discussion board to allow you to make comments, share stories, ask questions, and otherwise participate. We hope to hear from you soon!

For This Reason, I Vote

By Kevyanna L. Rawls
President, University fo Memphis Student Government Association

From 2011 to 2015, I spent approximately 7.5 hours of my day of every weekday at Little Rock Central High School. Known for its’ role in the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock Central High School was the first high school to be integrated in Arkansas and captured national attention as local government officials tried to keep the nine Black teenagers, who would be referred to as the Little Rock Nine, out of the all-white high school. As the Black teenagers attempted to integrate the high school, they were met by protestors who spit on them, threw miscellaneous items at them, and were not allowed to enter the school causing the National Guard to step in. Our professors and administrators made it their duty to ensure that all students were knowledgeable on the situation that occurred at our school, the processes and steps that had to occur for integration to happen, and the barriers that stood between the nine Black students and the then all-White Central High School.

Kevyanna L. Rawls President, University of Memphis Student Government Association.

Although, I assume, this information was taught to us to remind students of how embarrassing of a time this was for the entire city and state, professors also used this as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of civic engagement in the democratic process. We would be naïve to believe that all individuals, despite race, in the south wanted integration to occur; however we can see the ways in which the anger and frustration citizens endured at the time was in part because of the power of the government at a state and national level. One could also argue that the individuals at the time did not hold the same values as they did, and is primarily responsible for the events that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1960s.

For this reason, I vote.

As a Black woman, I believe that it is especially important for me to vote because of the intersectionality of my identities. In America we have seen the various waves of feminism that included gaining the right to vote for White women and the Civil Rights Movement that in part advocated for the right of Black men to vote, but of those two movements I fail to completely identify with either. As white women and Black men gained access to the ballot, women like Fannie Lou Hamer still needed to advocate for the Black woman’s vote at the cost of her own physical well-being and sanity. It is with this in mind that I am reminded of why it is important for me to be registered to vote and exercise my rights to do so. If voting was not important, why would individuals spend hundreds of years denying minority groups the right to do so? Why would barriers be set in place to disenfranchise minority populations, if voting had no impact on the society we live in? Although the issues are different, the necessity to vote and the consequences of not voting have remained the same.

By actively deciding not to register to vote,  one makes the decision to allow the rest of society to tell them what is best for them and decide what issues to focus on for the allotted time period. The decision to not participate in democracy is a decision to silence your own voice when everyone else is speaking for what they believe in. As I entered my first year of college, I vividly recall being excited to register to vote. With my birthday being in early September, I did not have the opportunity to participate in the elections the year before, but knew that voting was one of the most exciting things about turning 18. Registering to vote was something you could do when getting a new license after you turned 18, so I did it on the spot. I felt so empowered and remember the excitement that I felt when I was officially considered a registered voter.

#GoVoteGoTigers Pin

The first time I was able to vote was in the 2016 election and I was extremely nervous. At the time I had no car and knew that my parents would not be able to drive to Memphis to take me to vote, so I took a chance and requested an absentee ballot. The joy I had when I received the absentee ballot is indescribable. I simply recall going to my room and googling every candidate, searching for information about every bill on the ballot, and being able to genuinely take my time to learn more about the values of the individuals seeking to gain my vote. I assume this feeling is incomparable to going to an actual polling station to vote, but it reminded me of how I could make a contribution to my community in a positive way.

As the president of the University of Memphis Student Government Association, I believe that my position on campus is evidence of the significance of voting. As an elected representative of the student body, I was elected because I was entrusted with being able to represent students the way they would like to be represented and this is the hope we all have for our local, state, and national representatives. We expect them to have our best interest in mind when making decision. We expect them to be honest and transparent with us. We expect that they honor their commitment to their position and seek to enhance the quality of life for us through their decision. For this reason, I encourage YOU to vote. It is not about whose side you are on or who you have heard the most conversation about, it is about who can represent you and make the impact in your community that you would like to see despite their personal opinions. Allow them to be your voice by showing up at the polls on November 6th.


About the Author

Kevyanna Rawls is a senior English and African American Studies double major with double minors in Spanish and Sociology. Currently, Kevyanna serves the SGA President for the 69th general assembly. As an advocate for equity and justice, Kevyanna uses her platform to advocate for underrepresented populations and address student concerns on the campus of the University of Memphis. Kevyanna’s involvement with advocacy and social justice have motivated her to pursue an education in law and the ways in which laws may enhance the experience of individuals in America while negatively impacting the lives of others. Kevyanna intends to attend law school in Fall 2020 and later become a civil rights’ attorney.

Tennesseans Seek Justice, Reconciliation Through Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative

By Jasmine P. Stansberry

Oct. 24, 2017

Flag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave., New York City. 1936

Cordie Cheek, Albert Gooden, Jesse Lee Bond and Elbert Williams are the names of four African American men who were found dead by Tennessee authorities.

Yet, they are only four of countless men, women and children who were murdered on Tennessee soil in the past 150 years because of their race. Many of their murders remain unsolved.

Now, steps are being taken by the Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition to research the events surrounding the deaths of African Americans since the Civil War.

“The fact that it hasn’t been done demonstrates that there is a need,” said attorney Alex Little, a member of the coalition.

In 2016, Congress reauthorized the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which allows the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigations to investigate and prosecute criminal civil rights violations that led to death and occurred before 1980.

This June, Tennessee lawmakers passed HB1306, a new bill that allowed for the implementation of a Special Joint Legislative Committee, which will investigate civil rights crimes and cold cases that took place in the state.

On Sept. 14, the coalition met at Bone McAllester Norton PLLC, a law firm in downtown Nashville, to discuss the approach that the group will take, as they proceed to bring testimonies from a few of the cold cases before the Special Joint Commission of the Tennessee Legislature.

The Tennessee Historical Justice Coalition is comprised of citizens across the state whose aim is to enlighten the public about injustices that have been buried in the annals of Tennessee’s past. These cases include arson and murder.

Countless victims, such as the four men, met an undeserving, injudicious fate of brutal death and while their cases went cold over the past few decades, their memories have yet to decompose.

Cordie Cheek, 17, was accused of raping a young, white girl in 1935. Cheek, who was indicted and released for a lack of evidence, was kidnapped from his uncle’s home, a few streets from Fisk University in Nashville. His body was found in Maury County, riddled with bullets.

Albert Gooden, 35, was lynched in Tipton County in 1937. He was accused of shooting and killing a white deputy.  While being held in custody, six unidentified men kidnapped Gooden, hung him from a bridge and riddled his body with bullets.

Jesse Lee Bond, 21, was castrated and dragged by a car in 1939. The incident, which occurred in Shelby County, is believed to have been the result of an argument between Bond and a local store owner.

Elbert Williams, a founder and secretary for the Haywood County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was found dead in the Hatchie River in 1940. His wife viewed his body once it was pulled from the river.

“And when she looked at him she identified, yes, that’s him and she identified what appeared to be two bullet holes in his chest,” said coalition member John Ashworth.

Williams was last seen alive in police custody. Ashworth believes that Williams was the first martyr of the NAACP, preceding Florida organizer Harry T. Moore in 1951.

Politicians, attorneys and academics attended the meeting on Thursday, September 14.

The coalition will survey the state for information about cold cases that occurred between 1862 and 2017. The New Data committee, a subgroup that conducts research, reported that there are 392 cases that will be examined. Information regarding cases that identify living perpetrators will be reviewed by former prosecutors and law enforcement officers to determine the possibility of criminal prosecution.

“Hopefully, the General Assembly will be able to take in the scope of what has happened and help us come up with creative ideas to address it,” Little said.

The coalition also seeks to survey cold cases where religious places of worship, such as churches, synagogues and mosques were targeted for arson or vandalism.

The Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative also includes cases involving institutions, such as the Hattie Cotton Elementary school in Nashville, which was bombed in 1957 after there was a mandate to integrate the student population.

One issue of concern at the meeting was safety. One person said that some of the cases being researched might invite an unfriendly response from descendants of the alleged perpetrators, and possibly from people in communities where the crimes occurred.

This new initiative to reconcile the past will also require the involvement of current state officials.

“You had a period of decades of injustices being allowed to occur with complete impunity,” Little said. “There are people today who not only lived through Jim Crow but through murders that were happening with state sanction.”

Representatives from the coalition said that its objective is to survey civil rights cold cases, prosecute those that are viable, and encourage community reconciliation by bringing awareness to the public.


Jasmine Stansberry is a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, currently pursuing a Masters in History at the UofM. Her interests are Twentieth-century African-American history, with an emphasis on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Extraordinary, Ordinary Leadership: A Meditation on the Fayette County, TN Archives and the Duty of Everyday Activism

By Errol Rivers

Beginning in 2015, I have worked as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. I have primarily worked as an editor and proofreader on an archival project referred to as the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County, Tennessee (1959–mid-1970s). This collection of documents, stories, photographs, and correspondences chronicles the challenges African Americans in Fayette County faced while fighting for the right to vote and other basic civil rights. Activist efforts included organizing to access their right to vote in elections, developing strategies to acquire shelter and necessities after white landowners forced African-American sharecroppers out of their homes to live in tents, and advocating for the desegregation of schools in Fayette County, among other things. Together, the various printed and electronic features of this collection capture specific characteristics of grassroots activism in the South during a time of intense racial and socioeconomic strife.

Family living in one of several “tent cities” founded to house those who were evicted after registering to vote. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

My work with the Hooks Institute began at a critical juncture in my life. In 2015, social media and the news were rife with examples of police brutality and other injustices against marginalized groups.  I had become overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness in response to the wide circulation of audio and video footage depicting graphic violations of civil rights—especially that involving deadly interactions that occurred between law enforcement and black women, men, and children. Beyond my personal stakes in the welfare of minority groups, I, along with many of various backgrounds, seemed to be growing both anxious by and weary of hearing about the emotionally charged topic of injustice. Having been raised several decades after the Civil Rights Movement, I expected the distanced experience I had always enjoyed when studying past civil rights history would, unfortunately, feel far more immersive in such a socially turbulent time for minority groups. As I spoke with family and friends about the work I would soon begin, they, too, were concerned about my emersion into history about past abuses African Americans suffered in Fayette County when I needed to look no further than recent news for current instances of oppression. However, as I began my work at the Hooks Institute, this fear of sinking further into hopelessness was replaced by a passionate commitment to the change I might help to create. This change in perspective was thanks to the inspirational story of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County.

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism. 28 November 2014, C/o The All-Night Images

It would be easy to reduce my time learning about the movement in Fayette County to a lesson in dates, Martin Luther King Jr’s impact, and the unjust yet historic nature of the time—this narrative is certainly a familiar focus of many educational materials on the 1960s. However, what I found to be powerful, unique, and transformative about the collection was its emphasis on the lived experiences of those who stood up, against the odds, to demand respect for themselves and their constitutional rights. The collection was also unique because it allowed the viewer, through first-hand accounts of the activists, to experience past events in “real time,” to examine how activists felt as events took place. This collection allowed me to go beyond written facts to the “spirit” of ordinary people, who became extraordinary activists in pursuit of equality.

Particularly moving is the collection’s tangible expansion of what defines a true leader. When I learned about the American Civil Rights Movement as a child, civil rights heroes appeared so powerfully eloquent, strategically well dressed, and justifiably revered. Their colossal images shrunk my belief that I could ever do or change anything like they did. What the collection offered me was the insightful perspective that leaders take many forms: leaders include the faces, voices, and bodies of the poor, rural South.

African American citizens of Fayette County, TN line up at the county courthouse to register to vote. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

The riveting personal stories and specific details depicted in the collection’s photographs, video clips, and written correspondences offer a unique and boldly honest depiction of Southern activism, as told by various Fayette Countians and Northern allies. Rich, emotionally-complex stories of persistence, sacrifice, and conflicted morality are found in the accounts of those of local leaders, like John McFerren and Harpman Jameson, World War II veterans who provided the early leadership to voter registration efforts; Maggie Mae Horton, an “aggressive” activist who worked to create solidarity among African Americans in her voting district; and Northern civil rights workers who volunteered their time, resources, and like local activists, risked their safety to demand civil rights for African Americans. These and similarly interesting stories demonstrate why the Fayette County movement is so inspirational. In this way, the collection adds to a necessary space in recorded history for black, rural Southerners of the time, whose stories have too often gone untold to the extents that they deserve.

One of the Fayette County, TN’s Tent cities. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

As the civil rights issues described in my work unavoidably infiltrated all parts of my personal life during the campaigning season of the 2016 presidential election, I, like many Americans, felt compelled to reevaluate my understandings of civic duty, leadership, and the self. This would be necessary as I decided how I might orient myself within such a divisive moment in United States history. For guidance, I looked to the courageous individuals who came before me, and they exemplified one thing about change: silence was—and is—no option when in the face of injustice. Journalist and civil and women’s rights activist Ida B. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Author Zora Neale Hurston warned, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Wells and Hurston demanded personal responsibility to fight injustices.

While many might believe they can surrender their voice and political agency to a single more charismatic, visible, or wealthy “leader,” the events that unfolded in Fayette County show that ordinary people of all backgrounds can, and have taken, courageous and strategic action to resist discrimination. Of course, we each have limits to our ability and reach, but activism, monumental and small, is the burden and the privilege that everyday people can carry to help ensure the welfare of others.

African Americans in Fayette County, TN register to vote. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

How, though, do we carry this burden and honor the opportunities our rights afford us? In Fayette County, local African American leaders created the Original Fayette County Welfare League to empower African Americans by helping them to register to vote and creating literacy schools, among other things. In our current cultural moment and everyday lives, everyday activism may look like engaging in difficult conversations about privilege, learning about and attending a protest, diversifying the required readings on a syllabus for an upcoming course, or working to challenge our own biases through committed education. However we define our activist efforts, I have come to believe that committing to personal growth and using our platforms and privileges to create positive change is how our roles as citizens, leaders, and everyday people intersect in the achievable ideal.

Evicted sharecroppers at one of Fayette County, TN’s “Tent Cities”. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

Throughout history, the promise of change seemed to flow from an (im)perfect storm of social and economic upheaval.  Through these unique moments in time, our greatest progress in furthering civil rights and social justice have taken place. Since I began working with the Hooks Institute, the turbulent social and political landscape of which I was previously afraid has only intensified as we have struggled to engage with one another to discuss issues, such as race relations, gender equality, immigration, gender identity, environmental justice, and many more. Despite this, I—and I hope many in the nation—believe it is imperative to work actively towards a renewed, spirited and tenacious sense of unity to effect meaningful, positive change for each and every one of us. My exploration of the civil rights movement in Fayette County allowed me to situate myself and today’s social and institutional struggles within a legacy of unified and effective resistance to injustice in our nation. This could only occur because, through the collection, it was easy to see, if not myself or a loved one in the faces and stories portrayed, the universal humanity in the textured voices and strong familial ties featured in the collection.

Although I lack answers as to how I, you, or we might do so, the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County make it undoubtedly clear that an ability to persist through adversity exists in each of us. As such, I have come to believe that, through our thoughtful, everyday acts of activism, we work to cultivate a world that, rather than drains, invigorates us to want to persist for the call of social justice, regardless of the circumstances thrust upon us.

The Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County collection is in no small part a creation of a passionate and dedicated collaboration. Several Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change staff members, University of Memphis instructors, staff members of the Preservation and Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis, external scholars, and graduate assistants have devoted a significant amount of time and effort to ensuring the procurement, creation, maintenance, and dissemination of various elements of the project. Additionally, while respectfully crafted and weaved together by Hooks Institute staff and University faculty to present a cohesive narrative, little to none of the collection would exist without the tremendous support of the people of Fayette County who volunteered their time to help tell their stories. This extraordinary example of collaborative writing, community engagement, and committed scholarship stands as a shining example of the Hooks Institute’s mission of “teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change.”

Errol Rivers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Memphis. He has served as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute of Social Change from fall 2015 to fall 2017. Rivers is particularly interested in the roles professional and technical writing plays in health-related fields. Other research interests include classical sociological theory, identity studies, implications of pop culture on social politics, and relationships forged between the body and the self.

Memphis and the Lynching at the Curve

By: Nathaniel C. Ball
September 30, 2015

Thomas Moss symbolized the urban entrepreneurial class of African Americans that emerged in the decades following the Civil War. Moss invested in a community-owned grocery store, the People’s Grocery, which he managed at night after spending his days working as a postman. The People’s Grocery was located at the southeast corner of what is today Mississippi Blvd and Walker Ave, known then as “the Curve” for the distinctive turn that streetcars made at the corner. During an era in which African Americans were subject to racial subjugation, the People’s Grocery stood as an emblem of pride for the community.

Modern day photograph of the southeast corner of “the Curve” (Mississippi Blvd and Walker Ave) where the People’s Grocery once stood.

William Barrett, a white man and proprietor of a rival store in the area, felt economically threatened by the People’s Grocery. After he was injured in a scuffle that took place in the Curve on 2 March 1892, Barrett determined to use the incident to discredit Moss’s establishment. Barrett blamed his injuries on a young worker at the People’s Grocery, William Stewart. Barrett arrived at the People’s Grocery the next day with a police officer to arrest Stewart. Instead, Barrett and the officer were met by Calvin McDowell, a grocery clerk, who refused to give up his co-worker’s location. Furious, Barrett struck McDowell with a revolver, losing his grip in the process. McDowell’s athleticism got the better of Barrett. McDowell grabbed the fallen revolver and shot at Barrett, barely missing him. Barrett and the officer retreated. McDowell remarked in the Appeal-Avalanche, “Being the stronger, I got the best of the scrimmage.” This statement only fueled Barrett’s anger. Subsequently, Barrett notified the authorities of the incident. Within a few days Barrett was deputized by a Shelby County Court judge, with permission to form a group to get revenge on those who offended him at the People’s Grocery.

Well aware that an attack was imminent, the patrons of the People’s Grocery asked local authorities for protection. The city of Memphis refused, as the Curve was located just outside of the city, thus outside their jurisdiction. Faced with no other option, a group of men armed themselves inside the People’s Grocery. On Saturday, March 5, Barrett and his men marched towards the Curve. A gunfight ensued in which three of Barrett’s men were injured.

Excerpt from The Memphis Appeal following the attack on the People's Grocery 9 March 1892
Excerpt from The Memphis Appeal following the attack on the People’s Grocery 9 March 1892

The Memphis Commercial and the Appeal Avalanche inaccurately characterized the attack as evidence that the African American tenants of the People’s Grocery were planning a race war against whites, when in fact those inside the People’s Grocery were simply defending their establishment from attack. Though no evidence suggested Moss was involved in any of these events, his position at the People’s Grocery led the white owned newspapers to sensationalize his name, claiming he was the leader of a great “black conspiracy” against whites. White mobs stormed the Curve damaging property while searching for Moss, McDowell, and Stewart. The three men quickly turned themselves in to prevent any other harm to their community and were held at the Shelby County Jail as they awaited trial. After a few days, the frenzy surrounding the case died down, and security around the prison was lessened.

 

On 9 March 1892 at around 2:30 A.M., 75 masked men stormed the Shelby County Jail and forcibly removed Moss, McDowell, and Stewart. The three men were taken a mile north of the city, where they were mutilated and murdered. The description of the lynching in the Appeal-Avalanche and the Memphis Commercial the next morning is chillingly positive, a troubling aspect to the city’s reaction to the murders.

representation of the lynching found in the Appeal-Avalanche 10 March 1892.
Representation of the lynching found in the Appeal-Avalanche 10 March 1892.

“There was no hooping, no loud talking, in fact, nothing boisterous. Everything was done decently and in order… The vengeance was sharp, swift, and sure but administered with due regard due to the fact that people were asleep all around the jail. [They] did not know until the morning that the avengers swooped down last night and sent the murderous souls of the ring leaders in the Curve riot to eternity.”

9 March 1892, Memphis Appeal-Avalanche

 

 

The article gives a description of the brutal attacks conducted by the mob on the three African American men in such detail that one could identify each victim by the wounds inflicted on the bodies of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart when they were found the next morning. Even Moss’s last words were recorded, with an urgent plea to the African American community of Memphis, “Tell my people to go West, there is no justice here.” A call that many in the African American community would follow in the coming decades. The next day a mob ransacked the People’s Grocery, and the store was closed. Within a few months Barrett bought the establishment for pennies on the dollar.

Picture of the bodies of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell, from Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, 10 March 1892. All three men are buried in Zion Cemetery.
Picture of the bodies of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell, from Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, 10 March 1892. All three men are buried in Zion Cemetery.

“Thus, with the aid of the city and country authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to his rival Negro grocer as well as to his business.”
 Ida B. Wells Crusade for Justice

Ida B. Wells Illustration in: The Afro-American press and its editors, by I. Garland Penn., 1891.

Like other lynchings in the United States at the time, the Memphis lynching stood as a warning to African Americans that pushed against the American South’s racial hierarchy. Moss was murdered for running a better business than his white competitor; McDowell, for forgetting his place in the hierarchy of the white world he lived in; and Stewart, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While many would back down when faced with these threats of violence, Ida B. Wells, an emerging journalist in Memphis at the time and personal friend of Thomas Moss, fearlessly attacked those who participated in, encouraged, or simply ignored the lynching. Her unrelenting attacks would eventually lead to her exile from Memphis, the place she had called home for nearly a decade.

A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis. He was well liked, a favorite with everybody; yet he was murdered with no more consideration than if he had been a dog… The colored people feel that every white man in Memphis who consented in his death is as guilty as those who fired the guns which took his life.”
Ida B. Wells on Moss death, Crusade for Justice

Today, the story of the People’s Grocery is marked by a single historical marker, just west of Lemoyne-Owen College, where the co-op once stood. As the Hooks Institute moves forward with our documentary film on the Memphis experience of Ida B. Wells, it is important to remember that these events happened in our backyard, to real people with their own hopes, desires, and dreams. The Hooks Institute aspires to tell these stories, and others like it, with the respect they deserve.