When most Americans imagine lynching, they envision the tortured and mutilated body of a black man accused of raping a white woman. They rarely think of a black woman “stripped naked and hung.” Wells, however, was well aware that black women were victims of Southern mob violence and also targets of rape by white men.
In 1892, when mobs across the South murdered more than 200 African-American men and women, including one of Wells’s closest friends, she began to systematically investigate lynchings. As I’ve noted in my academic work, she soon discovered that few victims had even been accused of rape. In an editorial, she wrote that “nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.” In retaliation, a white mob destroyed her press and warned Wells, who was in New York at the time, not to come back or risk death.
Wells was not intimidated. Instead, she crossed the country lecturing on the evils of mob violence. She traveled to Britain, where she started an international crusade against lynching. She initiated one of the first public hearings to address both racial and sexual violence. Wells also sought to protect black women against rape by white men.
From the start, she relied on the support of a network of black women. At a fund-raiser at Lyric Hall in New York, Wells described the group as “the greatest demonstration ever attempted by race women for one of their own number.” The proceeds from the event allowed her to publish “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” the first anti-lynching pamphlet.
In “Southern Horrors,” Wells made clear that white men perpetrated sexual violence against black women, while black men were brutalized by white mobs for having consensual sex with white women. And by showing that only about 30 percent of the black victims of lynch mobs had actually been accused of rape, Wells challenged the idea that lynchings resulted from it.
She argued that the portrayal of black men as rapists put them “beyond the pale of human sympathy.” And she suggested that such a focus concealed the rape of black women. And it gave cover to whites’ violent efforts to rob African-Americans of their rights.