How Ida B Wells became the last hope for 12 wrongly convicted Black men | US news

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Throughout the Red Summer of 1919 and beyond, no journalist did more to chronicle the lynchings and other forms of terror inflicted on Black people than Ida B Wells-Barnett. From East St Louis, Illinois, to Elaine, Arkansas, her pen was an instrument for justice.

The 12 Black men had been tortured, smothered with rags soaked in chemicals, strapped to electric chairs, beaten with whips by white mobs trying to wring “confessions” out of them. The men had been arrested after the Elaine Massacre, during the Red Summer of 1919, when white mobs “with blood in their eyes” descended on the cotton fields of Elaine, Arkansas, killing more than 800 Black people.

The men, who had come to be called “The Elaine 12”, had been unfairly rounded up, then falsely convicted after a sham six-minute trial in Helena, Arkansas. Now, they sat on death row for crimes they did not commit.

They had one last hope.

Perhaps, Ida B Wells-Barnett, a Black investigative journalist known for her utter fearlessness in her “crusade for justice” for her people, could save them. Perhaps this woman, who had once written “if it were possible”, she, “would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them,” had that kind of power to fight a “tide of hatred”.

Did Wells, an unflinching woman who had traveled the country to investigate the ruthless barbarity of white mobs in other lynchings and massacres, have that much power to save these Black men on death row in Arkansas?

One of the old Black men believed she did.

Dear Mrs. Wells-Barnett,” he wrote. “This is one of the 12 mens which is sentenced to death speaking to you on this day and thanking you for your grate speech you made throughout the country in the Chicago Defender paper. So I am thanking you to the very highest hope you will do all you can for your collord race. Because we are innercent men, we Negroes. So I thank God that thro you, our Negroes are looking into this truble, and thank the city of Chicago for what it did to start things and hopen to hear from you all soon.

The letter was dated 30 December 1919 with a date line of Little Rock, Arkansas. It was sent to Wells three months after the Elaine Massacre.

Wells heard the desperation in the letter and, without hesitation, took a train from Chicago, heading into the deep south, which had once threatened her life and warned her never to return.

“It was my first return to the South since I had been banished thirty years before,” she later wrote.

The letter from the Black men on death row, Wells wrote, was “a cry from Macedonia”.

The 12 men wrongly convicted after the Elaine race massacre in 1919. Photograph: Arkansas State Archives

Wells was born enslaved in 16 July 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during the civil war, five months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. After her parents died of yellow fever, she took care of her siblings and eventually became a teacher in Memphis.

In 1884, Wells filed a lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southeastern Railroad, citing racial discrimination after a white conductor tried to force her from first class into a smoking car. In the groundbreaking case, Wells won the lawsuit, but lost on appeal. Wells wrote: “I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them.”

In 1889, Wells became a part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, where she continued to write columns against racism. Wells began investigating lynchings of Black people, compiling a groundbreaking “Red Record” of the lynchings. In a column published on 21 May 1892, Wells denounced “the old thread bare lie” that lynching was used to “protect white womanhood”.

Wells, who was traveling on the east coast at the time, was unmoved by threat to her life.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

“I had been warned repeatedly by my own people that something would happen if I did not cease harping on the lynching of three months before,” Wells wrote in her memoir, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. “I had expected that happening to come when I was at home. I had bought a pistol the first thing after [my friend] Tom Moss was lynched, because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers.”

Wells wrote: “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

After the publication of the column, a white mob descended on her office in Memphis, destroying her presses and warning they would kill Wells if she published her newspaper again. Wells moved to Chicago, where she continued her crusade for justice for Black people and for women.

In 1913, Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago. She traveled to Washington DC to join the women’s march for suffrage, whose white leaders had demanded that Black women march at the back of the parade.

Wells stood on the sidelines, but when the Illinois delegation passed, she stepped into the parade and took her place at the front.

As Wells, who was a co-founder of the NAACP, fought for suffrage, she continued investigating racial terror lynchings and massacres, including the East St Louis Massacre of 1917, the Chicago Massacre of 1919 and the Elaine Massacre of 1919.


The Elaine Massacre erupted on 30 September 1919, after Black sharecroppers organized a union to fight unscrupulous white land owners in Arkansas who cheated Black sharecroppers out of money for their crops of cotton.

On that night of 30 September, dozens of Black men met in a church in Hoop Spur, to deliberate on membership in the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. They planned to hire an attorney to help them in negotiations with white land owners.

Cotton crop prices were soaring, and the men hoped they could finally gain an economic foothold and rise out of the peonage system of sharecropping that kept them in perpetual debt to white land owners. Knowing there could be trouble from white people in Arkansas, who did not want them to organize, they placed Black veterans outside the church to stand guard.

About 11pm that night, white men drove up the dark country road. “Without warning,” Wells wrote, “a volley of shots are fired into this free assembly. The lights go out and those who are not killed or wounded get away as quickly as possible.”

The Black veterans fired back. A white man, WA Adkins, was killed, “whether by the men he is with or the guards out in front will probably never be known”, Wells wrote.

Some historians say dozens of Black men, women and children were killed in the church.

“No one knows how many of these peaceable unoffending Negroes were killed by this volley,” Wells wrote, “as the persons who did this dastardly deed burned the church down the next day so no bullet holes in walls, broken windows or dead bodies of Negroes would show the conspiracy of whites to kill black people.”

Wells argued, “had this been a conspiracy of Negroes to kill whites, they would not have started in by killing their own members, break up their own meeting, nor burn their own church. They would have been in or near some white assembly hall or home working mischief. There would be more evidence of the conspiracy to kill whites than the single body of W.A. Adkins found dead beside the automobile which brought him to the Negro church to disturb a Negro meeting and commit murder.”

The 2 October 1919 front page of the Arkansas Gazette.
The 2 October 1919 front page of the Arkansas Gazette. Photograph: Arkansas State Archives

Word spread like wildfire through Arkansas and surrounding states by telegrams and newspapers, falsely reporting that there was a “Black insurrection.” Thousands of white men from the surrounding states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas marched on Phillips county. A local sheriff led a posse of thousands of white men, who looted, burned houses and shot Black people indiscriminately.

“The press dispatches of October 1, 1919, heralded the news that another race riot had taken place the night before in Elaine, Arkansas, and that it was started by Negroes who had killed some white officers in an altercation,” Wells later wrote in her book “The Arkansas Race Riot,” which was published in 1920. “Later on, the country was told that the white people of Phillips County had risen against the Negroes who started this riot and had killed many of them, and that this orgy of bloodshed was not stopped until United States soldiers from Camp Pike had been sent to the scene of the trouble.”

White officials in Phillips county sent word to Governor Charles H Brough in Little Rock, requesting that he send troops. Brough dispatched more than 500 soldiers from Camp Pike, located near Little Rock.


Brough traveled from Little Rock to Elaine to join the hunt of Black people fleeing the white mobs. During the next week, soldiers from Camp Pike, led by then Colonel Isaac Jencks, hunted Black people, walking acres across farmland to find Black people hiding along the banks of the Mississippi River, and in swamps, thickets and canebrakes.

Governor Charles Brough addressing a crowd in Elaine.
Governor Charles Brough addressing a crowd in Elaine. Photograph: Arkansas State Archive

“In 1925, Sharpe Dunaway,” according to the Arkansas Historical Society, “an employee of the Arkansas Gazette, alleged that soldiers in Elaine had ‘committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.’”

The soldiers, who according to accounts included a machine gun battalion, rounded up Black people who survived the massacre at gunpoint and held them in camps, until white people came to “vouch” for them.

US soldiers from Little Rock who were dispatched to round up Black people during the Elaine race riot.
US soldiers from Little Rock who were dispatched to round up Black people during the Elaine race riot. Photograph: Glasshouse Images/Alamy

A white journalist for the Memphis Press reported that white mobs shot at dead Black bodies lying in the street. The mobs cut off fingers, ears, genitals and toes for keepsakes. The reporter gave an eye-witness account of US soldiers dragging a Black man into a street. In a horrific act, the mob poured some kind of fuel over the Black man’s body and lit it.

“The mob moved in its bloodlust,” the reporter wrote. “A mob attacked Lula Black, pulling her from her home, pistol whipping her, and kicking her. The mob killed another Black woman, Frances Hall, pulling her dress over her body.”

The governor’s photographer snapped photos of Hall’s body. The governor kept the photo in a scrapbook.

By 7 October 1919, the massacre ended.

The 11 October 1919 front page of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper.
The 11 October 1919 front page of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper. Photograph: Arkansas State Archives

Even as Black bodies lay in the killing fields that had grown cotton, more than 285 Black people were captured and locked in stockades in Helena, 20 miles from Elaine.

Hundreds of Black people were arrested; 122 black men and women were indicted on charges that ranged from “night riding” to murder.

On 5 November 1919, 12 Black men were convicted of murder and sentenced to die by electrocution.

The men, who became known as the “Elaine 12”, were identified as: Frank Moore, Frank Hicks, Ed Hicks, Joe Knox, Paul Hall, Ed Coleman, Alfred Banks, Ed Ware, William Wordlaw, Albert Giles, Joe Fox, and John Martin.

In Chicago, when Wells heard the news of the “Elaine 12”, she began immediately raising attention about their case and raising money to save them.

“They had been in prison in Helena, Ark, since the first week in October,” Wells wrote. “They had been beaten many times and left for dead while there, given electric shocks, suffocated with drugs, and suffered every cruelty and torment at the hands of their jailers to make them confess to a conspiracy to kill white people. Besides this a mob from the outside tried to lynch them.”

Wells explained that “during all that two months of terrible treatment and farcical trial, no word of help had come from their own people until a copy of the Chicago Defender, December 13th, fell into their hands”.

“A letter of mine had already appeared in the Chicago Defender calling attention to the fact that the riot had been precipitated by the refusal of colored men to sell their cotton below the market price because they had an organization which advised them so to do,” Wells wrote in her autobiography Crusade for Justice.

“I appealed to the colored people of the country to use their influence and money for those twelve men, who had been found guilty of murder in the first degree and then sentenced to be electrocuted.”


On 22 January 1920, Wells arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and headed immediately for the secret address the man had included in his letter. “Those men were under sentence of death and there was no time to be lost,” Wells wrote.

In Little Rock, she found a group of Black women, the wives and mothers of the 12 Black men who were waiting on death row. She disguised herself as an old woman and slipped into the jail.

“The iron bars were wide enough apart to enable us to shake hands,” Wells wrote. “The one guard on duty sat about fifty feet away reading the Sunday paper. When he looked up, he saw only a group of insignificant looking colored women who had been there many times before, so he went on reading his newspaper.”

Inside the jail, Wells took precise notes, recording the testimony of the men.

Wells asked them “to write down everything they could recollect about the rioting, and what befell each one of them”.

She asked them to “tell me the number of acres of land they had tilled during the year, how much cotton and corn they had raised, and how many heads of cattle and hogs they owned, and be sure to say what had become of it all”.

William Wordlow told her that it was about five carloads of white men who drove to the church that night on 30 September 1919.

I was out in front of the church in the road when these men came up in these cars and started shooting in the church on the other people both women, men and children. When the white men started that work, I broke and ran away. I saw them when they made the first shot. I went in the woods and stayed all night. I stayed until the soldiers came, then I came to them. I had eight women and children with me to hide, keep them from getting killed. The white people sent word all through the country they were coming to kill all the Negroes they could find. The soldiers took me to Elaine and I was put in the school-house and they kept me there seven days. Then they brought me on to Helena jail and we were whipped like dogs to make stories on each other.”

The man pleaded:

“I did not kill no one. I did not have a gun. Then after my trial was over in six minutes, some of the white men came from Elaine to the jail and told me if I would put something on more Negroes they would turn me free, if I would call just two or three men’s names that they did call to me. I would not do so, because it would be a story and I will not lie on no one. I was whipped twice in jail. Near to death. While they were whipping me they put some kind of dope in my nose; also I was put in an electric chair and shocked to make me tell a story on other men.”

Frank Moore told Wells that more than 120 Black men, women and children were in the church that night. When the white men began shooting, he said he ran home. “The next morning the whites sent us word that they was coming down there and ‘kill every nigger they found.’’’

Moore told Wells:

“The white people want to say that union was the cause of the trouble. It’s not so; the white people were threatening to run us from our crops before this trouble started. The Phillips County people know they started this trouble and they only got the army there to cover what they had done.”


As Wells prepared to leave the jail, the men sang a song they had composed. The men sang in the most mournful tones she had ever heard.

“I used to have some loving friends to walk and talk with me. But now I am in trouble, they have turned their backs on me; They just laugh me to scorn and will not come nigh, and I just stand and wring my hands and cry.

Chorus: “And I just stand and wring my hands and cry, And I just stand and wring my hands and cry, Oh Lord! Sometimes I feel like I ain’t got no friends at all. And I just stand and wring my hands and cry.”

Before she left, Wells asked the men to “have faith to believe that the great state of Arkansas would undo the wrong that had been done to them. I said they should pray daily that God would give the authorities the wisdom to realize the wrong that had been done, and the courage to right that wrong. I earnestly believe such prayers, will strengthen the hands of the white people of the state who want to do the right thing.”

Wells returned to Chicago and wrote a pamphlet on the Elaine Massacre, publishing “the facts I had gathered and helping them to circulate them”, Wells wrote in Crusade for Justice.

“I raised the money to print a thousand copies, and circulated almost the entire edition in Arkansas.”

The NAACP mounted a case to fight for them. “In Little Rock and at the headquarters of the NAACP in New York, efforts began to fight the death sentences handed down in Helena, led in part by Scipio Africanus Jones,” according to the Encyclopedia Arkansas, “the leading black attorney of his era in Arkansas, and Edgar L McHaney. Jones began to raise money in the black community.”

The lawyers won new trials for six of the men. However, the convictions of six of the men who became known as the Moore defendants were upheld.

The first six defendants were eventually freed by the Arkansas supreme court. The case of the Moore defendants went to the US supreme court, which granted a new hearing, in the case of Moore v Dempsey, ruling the men had not been given due process.

The attorney Scipio Jones began negotiations to have the men released. On 14 January 1925, then-Governor Thomas McRae ordered that the Moore defendants be released.


The next winter, Wells was at home on a Sunday evening when she received a knock at her door.

“A strange young man opened it. He said, ‘Good evening, Mrs. Barnett. Do you know who I am?’

“I do not,” I said.

He said, ‘I am one of them twelve men that you came down to Arkansas about last year.’

The man, Wells wrote, was well dressed and had been living in Chicago for three months.

“He said he had been looking for me all that time. He wanted to tell me how much he felt indebted for my efforts.”

She introduced the man to her family.

He told them, “‘Mrs. Barnett told us to quit talking about dying, that if we really had faith in the God we worshiped we ought to pray to him to open our prison doors, like he did for Paul of Silas. After that,’ he said, ‘we never talked about dying any more, but did as she told us, and now every last one of us is out and enjoying his freedom.’”


Elaine Massacre: how a Black labor movement was met with a violent white mob – 360 video
Elaine Massacre: how a Black labor movement was met with a violent white mob – 360 video

How Ida B Wells became the last hope for 12 wrongly convicted Black men | US news Source link How Ida B Wells became the last hope for 12 wrongly convicted Black men | US news

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