Mary Church Terrell was the child of former slaves who became successful business-people in Memphis. She attended Oberlin College and worked as a professor in Washington D.C. until a family friend was lynched in Memphis for having a competing business. At this time, she began working with Ida B. Wells on an anti-lynching campaign focused on African-American empowerment. She later co-founded the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP. Her religion was important to her work as seen in her speech, “What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States,” when she states, “as a colored woman I may enter more than one white church in Washington without receiving that welcome which as a human being I have a right to expect in the sanctuary of God.”
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery, but her parents became active politicans and she attended college following the civil war. After her parents died from yellow fever, she raised her siblings in Memphis where she sued a train car company for unequal treatment. Following the lynching of a friend, she began writing agaimst mob culture. This turned locals in Memphis against her and drove her to Chicago, Illinois where she married a prominent lawyer. She toured the world speaking on women’s rights.
In her speech, “Lynch Law in America,” Ida B. Wells targets lynchings in the United States against African-Americans, many of whom are innocent. In Mary Church Terrell’s speech, she identifies the misconception that D.C. is “the colored man’s paradise,” providing anecdotes and circumstances to support her thesis that African-Americans cannot secure any job above a “menial” position. Although each are different acts of violence, both have roots in the racist beliefs of white people in Jim Crow America. Terrell continually highlights discrimination on the basis of skin color and a barrier that kept African-Americans in low-paying positions. Her story of a female clerk who moved back to D.C. from New York shows this discrimination. Although she was an outstanding clerk for the same company in a different city, she was rejected by the employer in D.C. because the co-workers and customers petitioned the employer. This story along with that of the artist show that discrimination in Washington was not based on perceived ability, in fact their work was praised, but solely on the basis of skin color. Discrimination in D.C. limited African-Americans to low-paying jobs which locked them in oppression with no permitted social mobility. Similar to Terrell, Wells analyzes lynchings by the dynamic between oppressed and oppressor. She notes that “if a few barns were burned some colored man was killed to stop it. If a colored man resented the imposition of a white man and the two came to blows, the colored man had to die, either at the hands of the white man then and there or later at the hands of a mob that speedily gathered.” She continues to explain that these murders were committed without court trials because political explanation and justice were abandoned. These events were the white man using the body of the African-American as a scapegoat. Though with different consequences, the lawlessness of these events parallels the unreasonableness of employers and admissions officers in Washington. Both lock African-Americans in the oppression of Jim Crow.
Women are represented differently in each text. Terrell explains that white women discriminate as much as white men. In her story of the clerk, Terrell quotes the employer as saying, “delegation after delegation began to file down to my office, some of the women my very best customers, to protest against my employing a colored girl.” This is in contrast to Terrell’s depiction of the courage of the African-American woman who moved to New York for opportunity but then moved back to D.C. for her family. Wells explains how the proclaimed victim of the African-American crime was the white woman. Of 241 lynchings in 1892, 46 were charges of rape. Many lynchers justified their actions as a “protection of the honor of [their] women.” This is also in contrast to the courage of the African-American woman who “have been murdered because they refused to tell the mobs where relatives could be found for ‘lynching bees.’”
On the surface, both speeches can be taken as a response to the injustice of racism and the particular impacts that each discusses; however, both Terrell and Wells identify the unreasonableness and lawlessness of the perpetrators and this is as close as a solution that they can come to. The solution they present is to use reason and follow the law. The solution is to be a human being.