Black History: Special Delivery!!

Ida B. Wells Barnett (1862-1931)

Published in 1895, by journalist and activist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), “A Red Record” was a pamphlet designed to recount America’s history of lynching African Americans. The term “lynching” dates back to the late 1700’s. The term was named after a frontier judge named Charles Lynch. Lynch was known for quickly dispensing of jury trials, preferring instead to use hangings as a way to quickly mete out justice. Thus, the hangings, came to be known as lynchings. Lynching is really an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of ways that someone could be put to death. Ida B. Wells Barnett made it her life’s work to speak out against this unjust practice. She was a skilled orator and journalist. “A Red Record” served as another way in which she could fight against the unjust practice of lynching.

“A Red Record” listed the names of those killed by lynching and the “excuses” for their lynching given by the whites who murdered them. The pamphlet also reflects the challenges faced by blacks in a post-emancipation U.S. . Through this publication, Ida B. Wells Barnett hoped to demonstrate the discrimination and mistreatment blacks were experiencing. The pamphlet also highlighted the “lack” of due process, each case typically received. Lynching by definition, afforded its victims, limited to no due process. Even when a legal process of some kind was employed, it was often hijacked or overridden. This constant hijacking of the due process of African Americans was often supported and encouraged by law enforcement and the judicial system.

Ida B. Wells Barnett also noted that during slavery, it seemed that whites were less impulsive in their desire to lynch blacks because they were considered “property”, and, as such, would be considered a “property loss” if killed. Blacks, at the time, could be lynched for any reason for crimes proven or suspected. It was Wells-Barnett’s belief that the systematic mass murder of blacks through lynching occurred from 3 different vantage points or phases. Initially, whites asserted that lynching was necessary to suppress riots among blacks. Whites would often exaggerate and fabricate claims that suspected individuals in the black community were planning to revolt in some way, thus playing on the fears of the white community. From this vantage point, it was easy for them to assert that something had to be done to neutralize the threat. It was clear to see that these fabricated overtures of a coming rebellion never actually materialized in most cases. So it became necessary to employ a different tactic.

This second vantage point where lynching was employed was to stop any possible domination of the black race over the white race. Blacks had very recently been given the right to vote, which, of course was viewed as a serious threat. It was during this time that groups like the Klu Klux Klan began to be prominent figures. The government provided no significant protection to the African American community from these threats. Lastly, the white community justified lynching as a method of defending the “virtue” of white women. Black men were often targeted and falsely accused of rape if they were discovered having a consensual sexual relationship with a white woman. An actual relationship did not have to be proven, a mere accusation could result in a black man being lynched by an angry mob. At the time, whites did not believe that a consensual sexual relationship could occur between a black man and a white woman. The hypocrisy of this premise ironic, given the fact that white men had been serially sexually assaulting black women for hundreds of years unchecked.

In some lynching cases, those being targeted for “execution” were able to escape and/or avoid capture. Not to be deterred, the friends or family members of such individuals might be targeted for lynching in their place. Lynching was so common that it was considered a social and celebratory event within the white community. Large crowds of adults and even children would assemble. It was common for photos to be taken of the lynched and mutilated black bodies. These photos, were at one time, sold as post card souvenirs. Body parts from the lynched victims, limbs, fingers, etc., might also be taken or sold as souvenirs.

Though the majority of individuals lynched were male, black females were also lynched as well. “A Red Record” is a compelling compilation of the atrocities of lynching enacted against black people. The courage and bravery of Ida B. Wells Barnett in assembling this important work cannot be understated. She did so at great risk to her own life. She collected her information for the pamphlet through painstakingly researching lynching records and compiling data. Her primary goal in publishing “A Red Record” was to tell the world about the heinous murders that were occurring. She wanted to expose this cruel treatment and stop it from occurring. Her goal for the pamphlet was for it to evoke activism in its readers. At a time when “intersectionality” was not even a term that was being used, we can recognize Ida B. Wells Barnett as an intersectional trailblazer and activist who understood the complexity that both race, gender, class played in for both victims and perpetrators of lynching.