During the early 1890s, a series of shocking lynchings brought
unprecedented international attention to American mob violence.
This interest created an opportunity for Ida B. Wells, an African
American journalist and civil rights activist from Memphis, to
travel to England to cultivate British moral indignation against
American lynching. Wells adapted race and gender roles established
by African American abolitionists in Britain to legitimate her
activism as a "black lady reformer"--a role American society denied
her--and assert her right to defend her race from abroad. Based on
extensive archival research conducted in the United States and
Britain, "Black Woman Reformer" by Sarah Silkey explores Wells's
1893-94 antilynching campaigns within the broader contexts of
nineteenth-century transatlantic reform networks and debates about
the role of extralegal violence in American society.
Through her speaking engagements, newspaper interviews, and the
efforts of her British allies, Wells altered the framework of
public debates on lynching in both Britain and the United States.
No longer content to view lynching as a benign form of frontier
justice, Britons accepted Wells's assertion that lynching was a
racially motivated act of brutality designed to enforce white
supremacy. As British criticism of lynching mounted, southern
political leaders desperate to maintain positive relations with
potential foreign investors were forced to choose whether to
publicly defend or decry lynching. Although British moral pressure
and media attention did not end lynching, the international
scrutiny generated by Wells's campaigns transformed our
understanding of racial violence and made American communities
increasingly reluctant to embrace lynching.
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