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.

Why HAAMI Matters

By Dr. Elena Delavega                                                                                                    September 9, 2015

I once had a friend from Ghana tell me that he did not know he was black until he came to the United States. That statement overwhelmed me. It makes me wonder what we are telling our black youth.  It makes me wonder about the messages we are sending about their value as human beings. It speaks to the exclusion to which we relegate our African American population in this country.

According to data from the 2014 Census, Memphis is ranked #1 in poverty among cities with over 1,000,000 residents. However, poverty does not affect everyone in Memphis equally. The differences between African American poverty and White poverty in Memphis are striking. Many of the people living in poverty are African Americans under the age of 18 (43.2%). African Americans under the age of eighteen are three times more likely to live inpoverty than non-Hispanic Whites of the same age.  Moreover, since 2009, poverty rates among non-Hispanic Whites in Memphis have steadily declined, while poverty rates for minorities have increased at the same time.

While poverty is hard on all children, it is harsher on teenagers who are keenly aware of their situation. African American teens have a rough time in this city, with 42% of African Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 living in poverty in Memphis through no fault of their own.

HIAAM logo FNL 2015

Young African American males, in particular are hit by the double scourge of poverty and unemployment. Unemployment rates are almost three times as high for African Americans (13.8%) as for whites (5.9%); in the case of African Americans (both sexes) between the ages of 16 and 19, the unemployment rate is almost 50%. This is not because they are not capable. In Memphis, 35% of African Americans have a high school diploma as their highest educational attainment, more than the general population (29%).

Sadly, high school completion does not necessarily translate into college degrees for this population. Only 14% of the African American population in Memphis have bachelor degrees or higher (the rate among the general population is 24%). I am immediately confronted with the toll of poverty and exclusion on educational attainment. I have met many wonderful African American men and women. They are intelligent, quick, witty, wonderful in every way. The young men participating in the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) are delightful in every way; brilliant and hardworking young men, whose GPA averages are better than the average for the entire University of Memphis. Why is it, then that degree attainment among African Americans in Memphis is so low? I cannot help but think there are some exclusionary forces at work.

We cannot become the city of the 21st century that we want to become when we are leaving so many of our residents behind. Given that the city of Memphis has an African American population that is almost 60%, African American poverty and exclusion is a huge concern for Memphis. We cannot continue the systematic exclusion of such a large percent of our population and expect sustainable economic development for our region. Unless we work together to include this very excluded portion of our population, Memphis cannot succeed as a city.

Hooks HAAMI Staff
Hooks Institute HAAMI staff. (Left to Right) Tim Rose, Daphene McFerren, Dr. Elena Delavega, Dr. Gregory Washington.

When poverty rates decline for whites but not for African Americans, when Black unemployment is twice to three times that of White unemployment, when African Americans are graduating from high school but not completing college at the same rate as Whites, I have to wonder, what kinds of opportunities are we providing for our African American males? Are we really providing opportunities?

How unwise of us, how wasteful, to not take advantage of all our resources, of our strong, smart, wonderful young black men. What an absolute travesty and nonsense not to insure that our African American males have every single opportunity for success. Every single one.

Education is the engine of our economy, and mentoring is a crucial element. We are here today to begin the work to reverse the trend with HAAMI.