A Hypocritical America: An Examination of Ida B Wells-Barnett’s Southern Horrors

Cover of Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases. The New York Age, 1892. From New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Black Culture Digital Collections.

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases was first published in 1892 in response to the mob that kept author Ida B. Wells-Barnett from returning to Memphis, Tennessee, after the African-American newspaper that she owned, the Free Speech, had published an editorial denouncing the lynching of African-American men. The editorial had also stated the following:

“Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

This prompted a response from other newspapers in the city, all run by white men, one of which said:

“Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue. If the negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.”

This drove some of the white citizens of Memphis to meet at the Cotton Exchange Building that evening to threaten the lynching of the African-Americans who had anything to do with the Free Speech.

So that takes us to Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Southern Horrors. Stuck in New York, Wells felt it was only right to respond to the destruction of the paper she had also been a part of. What is truly remarkable about this pamphlet is how clear, concise, and non-biased it is. She presents us with fact after fact, giving us the details of multiple cases of lynching in the South and how hypocritical the lynch laws really were.

Here I want to talk about a specific type of hypocrisy that she presents to us over and over again: the idea that the white men of the South were lynching a lot of these black men in order to protect their women from being raped by black men. But when reading Well’s pamphlet, one can clearly see that this justification for lynching falls short. For example, she presents us with the case of Mrs. J.S. Underwood and William Offett. Mrs. J.S. Underwood was the wife of a minister in Elyria, Ohio. She accused William Offett of raping her, claiming that during her husband’s absence Offett came to her kitchen door, forced his way into her house and overpowered and chloroformed her, and that when she revived her clothing was torn and she was in horrible condition. Because they were in the state of Ohio, Offett was granted a trial—he was not lynched outright, as he might have been in a different state. He denied the charge of rape but confessed that he went to Mrs. Underwood’s home at her invitation and was intimate with her at her request. But because it was his word against hers, he was found guilty and put in prison December 14, 1888 for fifteen years. Some time afterwards, however, Mrs. Underwood confessed to her husband that Offett was actually innocent. This is what she said:

“I met Offett at the Post Office. It was raining. He was polite to me, and as I had several bundles in my arms he offered to carry them home for me, which he did. He had a strange fascination for me, and I invited him to call on me. He called, bringing chestnuts and candy for the children. By this means we got them to leave us alone in the room. Then I sat on his lap. He made a proposal to me and I readily consented. Why I did so, I do not know, but that I did is true. He visited me several times after that and each time I was indiscreet. I did not care after the first time. In fact I could not have resisted, and had no desire to resist.”

When asked by her husband why she told him she had been outraged, she said:

“I had several reasons for telling you. One was the neighbors saw the fellows here, another was, I was afraid I had contracted a loathsome disease, and still another was that I feared I might give birth to a Negro baby. I hoped to save my reputation by telling you a deliberate lie.”

There are many more cases like this one Wells details to us, where the woman lies about being raped by a black man when either it actually was consensual or it never happened. Black men were also lynched when there was no relationship, consensual or otherwise, with a white woman at all. The charges of rape were made up, to prompt a lynching. Perhaps the white men in the town were afraid of the business success of a Black man. Perhaps he had been “rude” or lived his life in a way that did not show deference, when they expected it. Often, white women made these false charges to appease white men in their lives, or because they themselves were racist and wanted to punish Black men. So the reasoning for lynching black men on the basis of rape, even just a rumor of rape, falls through, especially when cases like this call for a trial and not an immediate execution. 

This  brings me to some questions. Why was it so common for white women to secretly have affairs with black men and accuse them of rape afterwards? Could it be a widespread fear that their husbands might get physical? And why is it that it was also extremely common in this period for white men to rape black women and get away with it?

We are all aware of the fact that women in the nineteenth century were often seen as the property of men, particularly their fathers and husbands, and not as people in their own right. Contrast that position with women today, particularly the ones we see in the Me Too Movement, trying to get the world to believe that sexual harassment and assault is actually happening. These women are not lying. But some women in the 1800s were. Why?

I believe it has to do with the idea of protection and the different ways women had to attain it during different time periods. In the 1800s it was extremely hard to support yourself financially as a woman—women were actually barred from certain educational opportunities and professions, for example. However, women could work to support themselves: as seamstresses, domestic servants, governesses, teachers and laundresses, But, these were positions that middle-class women often tried to avoid, because a middle-class woman would lose her class status if she worked in one of those jobs. Also, they usually did not pay well, so women who did work in these roles remained poor. The safest way to become or stay financially secure as a woman was to marry a man who had money or worked in a middle-class trade or profession. And that way was almost completely barred to women of color, of course, because men of color were also excluded from well-paying jobs. Without a way to earn a living for herself, a woman was expected to marry a man and have him take care of her. It was also through marriage that women gained “respectability.” Mrs. J.S. Underwood was a respectable woman because her husband was a minister. Women were often at the mercy of the men to survive.

Women today can attain financial independence and have many more rights. Today’s women don’t need men to survive, financially or socially. We like them. We still marry them. But we do it for different reasons. When a woman today says she’s been sexually assaulted, we believe her, because she is very likely to be telling the truth. And she is telling the truth so that her workplace is a safer environment, or her school, or her home. She is trying to protect herself and others by speaking out.

Deva Pardue, “Femmes Fists” (2016), a poster design for the 2017 Women’s March that has become a symbol of the Me Too movement. Via https://forallwomankind.com/posters/for-all-womankind-illustration-poster.

Me Too Movement website. Accessed April 14, 2020. metoomvmt.org.

Works Cited:

“Me Too. Movement.” [GD20] Me Too Movement, 1 Jan. 1970, metoomvmt.org/.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. The New York Age, 1892.   Via Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14975/14975-h/14975-h.htmWells-Barnett,

Ida B. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching
in the United States
. Chicago, 1895. Via Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977h/14977-h.htm


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