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When and Where I Enter

When and Where I Enter
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When and Where I Enter is an eloquent testimonial to the profound influence of African-American women on race and women's movements throughout American history. Drawing on speeches, diaries, letters, and other original documents, Paula Giddings powerfully portrays how black women have transcended racist and sexist attitudes--often confronting white feminists and black male leaders alike--to initiate social and political reform. From the open disregard for the rights of slave women to examples of today's more covert racism and sexism in civil rights and women'sorganizations, Giddings illuminates the black woman's crusade for equality. In the process, she paints unforgettable portraits of black female leaders, such as anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, educator and FDR adviser Mary McLeod Bethune, and the heroic civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, among others, who fought both overt and institutionalized oppression.

When and Where I Enter reveals the immense moral power black women possessed and sought to wield throughout their history--the same power that prompted Anna Julia Cooper in 1892 to tell a group of black clergymen, "Only the black woman can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole . . . race enters with me.'"

HarperCollins; October 2009
416 pages; ISBN 9780061984921
Download in EPUB or secure PDF format
Excerpt

Chapter One

"To Sell My Life as Dearly as Possible":
Ida B. Wells and the First Antilynching Campaign

Before they took his life, they asked Thomas Moss if he had anything to say. "Tell my people to go west," he told his abductors. "There is no justice for them here."1 With those final words, Thomas Moss and two of his friends, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart, were lynched a mile outside of Memphis, Tennessee. A newspaper account of the mob-murder pointed out that the men did not die without a struggle. McDowell had tried to wrestle a gun from the hands of one of the killers. When the Black man's body was recovered, the fingers of his right hand had been shot to pieces; his eyes were gouged out.

The lynching of March 9, 1892, was the climax of ugly events in Memphis. From the time the three Black men had gone into business for themselves, their People's Grocery, as it was called, had been the target of White resentment. The store, which sold food and miscellaneous items and became a gathering place for Memphis Blacks, represented, after all, a desire for economic independence. The start-up capital for the grocery had been provided by Moss, a postman who was the city's first Black to hold a federal position. He worked in the store evenings, while his partners worked there during the day.

For Whites the most galling thing about the People's Grocery was that it took away business from a White store owner who had long been used to a monopoly of Black trade. The White proprietor initiated against the Black businessmen a series of provocations that culminated in an attack of armed thugs sent to raze the grocery. The attack came on a Saturday night, when the store was full of Black men--armed Black men--who repelled the invaders and shot three Whites in the process. In short order Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested along with one hundred other Blacks charged with conspiracy.

The White press in Memphis whipped the community into a frenzy over the incident. The Black men were painted as "brutes" and "criminals" who victimized "innocent" Whites. If the wounded men died, Blacks were warned, there was going to be a bloodletting. The threat hung heavy in the air. Whites were permitted to enter the jail where the Blacks were interned to "look them over." Outside, Blacks stood vigil to discourage the possibility of mob violence.

The vigil ended when it was reported that the Whites would recover from their gunshot wounds--for the Blacks thought their friends would now be safe. They were wrong. In a predawn raid, Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were taken from their cells, put on the switch engine of a train headed out of the city, and lynched. In the angry aftermath of the killing, a judge issued an order for the sheriff to shoot any Black demonstrator who seemed to be "causing trouble," and prohibited the sale of guns to Blacks. Emboldened by the order, and unappeased by the death of the three men, armed Whites converged upon the People's Grocery, helped themselves to food and drink, then destroyed most of what they couldn't consume or steal. Creditors auctioned the brutalized remnants and the store was closed down on an ominous note of finality.

If the incident had occurred in any other time or place, it might have been set down as just another dreary statistic. Lynching (legally defined as murder committed by a mob of three or more persons) of Blacks had been on the rise for the last decade. In 1892, the year of the Memphis murders, there had been 255 lynchings, more than in any previous year.2 But the deaths of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart would open a new chapter in the racial struggle, for they spurred two women to dedicate their lives to the fight against lynching and the malevolent impulses that underlined it. Two women named Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells.


Terrell was living in Washington, D.C., when she heard the terrible news. Born Mary Church in Memphis, Tennessee, she had been a friend of Thomas Moss since childhood. Terrell had seen him less than a year before in Memphis, at her wedding. That had been such a happy time. She had just returned from two years of study in Europe, and it was so good to see her Memphis friends again--especially Moss. For a wedding present he gave her a set of elegant silver oyster forks.

Moss's death was particularly unsettling for Terrell at this time in her life. She was twenty-nine and, though expecting her first child, had not found peace of mind in domestic tranquility. That she always wanted to work had been a point of contention between Mary and her father since her graduation from Oberlin eight years before. A former slave who became one of the wealthiest Blacks in the country, Robert Church wanted his daughter to live the life of a gentlewoman. Ladies didn't work, he always told her. But Mary continually defied that notion. She taught at Wilberforce University and later at Washington Colored High School, despite her father's threats to disinherit her. In D.C. she met Robert Terrell, principal of the highly touted Black public school. She married him and settled in Washington, where the future of her husband--a Harvard graduate and lawyer bound for a municipal judgeship--was assured. The marriage and difficult pregnancy had almost persuaded Terrell to try to live the life of a "lady," as her father would put it. But then came the news about Thomas Moss.

She sought out an old family friend, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and together they secured an appointment with President Benjamin Harrison at the White House. They implored him to condemn lynching in his annual address before Congress.