Americans are talking about lynching, while overseas, people are protesting in solidarity for what’s happening in the United States. We’re seeing this today, in 2020—but this was also the case in the late 19th century, when anti-lynching activist Ida Wells went on her lecture tour of England and Ireland.
No part of the globe has been untouched by the slave trade; its ongoing social and economic impact are immeasurable. But as nations around the world abolished slavery (a slow process taking hundreds of years of legislation in fits and starts), the ugliness of persistent racism was all too easily swept under the rug. Sometimes countries that no longer openly participated in the slave trade would vaunt their “more enlightened” status, conveniently forgetting their own complicity. England had abolished most slavery throughout the empire in 1833 (following the 1807 prohibition of the slave trade), and it was easy for people to ignore something that seemed to only be happening elsewhere.
Racism is a many-headed beast, however. Ending legal slavery might have killed one head, but others sprang up in its place. The 1890s saw a rash of racial violence in the United States, decades after African Americans had won their freedom in the Civil War.
But some Europeans noticed, and cared, and spoke out. And sometimes they were helped by Americans who came to their distant shores to speak the truth of the violence poisoning America.
One of these speakers was journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who came to Great Britain on two speaking tours in 1893 and 1894. Organized by British social reformers Caroline Impey and Isabella Mayo, her lectures electrified audiences around the UK, and helped inspire organizations like The London Anti-Lynching Committee.
Wells had always stood up for the rights of Black Americans, and was the founder of a popular Black newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech. The 1892 lynching murder of her friend Thomas Moss galvanized her against this growing threat. After writing and publishing scathing articles about lynching, she was driven from Memphis, and her newspaper office was destroyed in retaliation. She settled in New York City and began her career as a speaker.
In an interview with Wells, The Ladies Pictorial of May 1893 predicted British reaction to Wells’s reports about the issues facing Black Americans:
“The statements she made in a recent interview will probably startle some of our readers, who think that the prejudice against coloured people has quite passed away…[but] as the Negro advances in education and the qualities of good citizenship, the disinclination to allow him civil rights becomes deeper. Miss Wells… maintains that British opinion and support will have great force.”
As Wells and her supporters had hoped, gaining British support for her cause brought the issue even more attention in America. In 1894, a group of African Americans in St. Paul, Minnesota, published an address in support of Wells’s campaign, stating in part:
“…the result which have followed Miss Wells’s English crusade, completely vindicate the wisdom of the course she has pursued in appealing to sentiment abroad. Americans become easily indignant when Russia oppresses her subjects, or Great Britain fails to attain to American ideals in her Irish affairs. They are enamored of liberty everywhere except for American citizens upon American soil.”
Britain has its own complex legacy of race relations from its centuries of colonialism. As we are all learning how we can lift up the voices of those crying out for justice, here are some further resources on the subject:
The British Library Black Britain & Asian Britain: Historical and Contemporary resources on the experience of people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage in Britain
The University of Chicago Ida B. Wells Papers: An archive of materials related to Wells’s life and work, including her speaking tours in Britain
Discovering History’s Heroes: Ida B. Wells by Diane Bailey, Jeter Books: an inspiring biography for young readers
Black Victorians, Black Victoriana, edited by Gretchen Gerzina: A collection of scholarly articles, including one focusing on Wells’s English lecture tours
“Ida B. Wells and ‘American Atrocities’ in Britain:” article by Teresa Zackodnic, Women’s Studies International Forum: A frank look at how the topic of lynching resonated with white Victorian audiences in England
Let us be inspired by Wells and everyone like her speaking out today, and ensure that we’re not still talking about lynching in another 125 years. It’s far past time that such violence is consigned to a historical horror, not a present-day atrocity. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act is currently before the Senate, and would make such racially motivated violence a federal crime.