Twice within one month, lynch mobs formed, one in Paducah, Kentucky, another in Jacksonville, Florida. Square in their sights were hapless Negroes who were on track to the same fate as many others before them. But in both cases, the mobs were thwarted by armed Blacks, though the record demands some speculation about how many of their guns were actually Winchester rifles. Other similar episodes in Mississippi and Georgia confirmed for Ida Wells the importance of armed self-defense in an environment where the idea of relying on the state for personal security or anything else was an increasingly absurd proposition.
For Wells and for many of her contemporaries — the “New Negroes” of the late nineteenth century — the Winchester Rifle was a potent rhetorical tool. At a meeting of the Afro-American Press Association, fiery editor of the New York Age, T. Thomas Fortune, spurred by a recent spate of lynchings erupted, “We have cringed and crawled long enough. I don’t want any more ‘good niggers.’ I want ‘bad niggers.’ It’s the ‘bad nigger’ with the Winchester who can defend his home and child and wife.” W. A. Pledger of the Atlanta Age followed Fortune on the dais and affirmed the sentiments of the group that terrorists were “afraid to lynch us where they know the Black man is standing behind the door with a Winchester.”
But the Winchester was more than just a rhetorical tool of militant journalists. In Memphis, after the lynching of Ida Wells’ good friend Tom Moss, Reverend Taylor Nightingale pressed his congregation all to buy Winchesters as a practical response to the surrounding threats. And from the Black settlements of the west comes the report that “the colored men of Oklahoma Territory mean business. They have an exalted ideal of their own rights and liberties and they dare to maintain them. In nearly every cabin visited was a modern Winchester oiled and ready for use.”
This sort of preparedness was rewarded in 1891 when Edwin McCabe, an early advocate of Black emigration to the American west was attacked by a gang intent on discouraging Blacks from staking claims in the opening Oklahoma Territory. Blacks had been run out of several staging towns. But in Langston City, more than two thousand armed Blacks assembled in preparation for the land rush. After sporadic threats, McCabe was accosted and fired on. He was rescued by a superior force of Black men wielding Winchester rifles.
Skeptics may worry that the rhetoric of militant journalists and the armed preparations of bourgeoning Black capitalists fails to account for the full spectrum of attitudes within the community. This is fair.
So it helps to know that beyond Reverend Taylor Nightingale, other more staid members of the Black clergy were sympathetic to Ida B. Wells’ sentiments about the Winchester. AME Zion Bishop Alexander Walters exhorted, “after the late outrages in Georgia and South Carolina it becomes necessary that we organize for self-protection.” AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner was explicit about the tools that this would require, urging Blacks to “get guns Negroes, keep them loaded, and may God give you good aim when you shoot.”
The unfolding tradition of arms during this period is easy to caricature. The “Gay Nineties” yielded about two lynchings a week. It is easy in this context to proceed with simplistic images of Blacks either cowering in fear or desperately clutching guns. But then as now, the reality of the Black experience was far more diverse than the caricature would allow.
Even during the bleakest of times, armed Black men and women carved out lives that defy modern expectations. Living and thriving in the American west, US Marshal Bass Reeves, “Black Mary” Fields, Brit Johnson, Willie Kennard, George Goldsby and “Nigger Jim” Kelly, stood and fought and prevailed against expectations. They enrich the tradition with episodes of grit and bravery that endeared them to many of their white contemporaries and raised some of them to legend.
And even back east, in the story of Buddie Shang, the kindly uncle who killed a white attacker with a shotgun blast, we see that armed self-defense by Blacks did not necessarily spark violent backlash or “legal lynchings.” In the winter of 1890, Buddie Shang was arrested and tried by an all-white jury that deliberated just three minutes before returning its verdict. Quick deliberations were familiar in cases like this, often signaling results that reflect the worst tribal impulses. But for Buddie Shang it took only three minutes for twelve white men to declare him not guilty.
Buddie Shang and many others show that the Black tradition of arms, like any cultural phenomenon, grew up from the words and deeds of countless individual souls who, even under the common burden of racism, still had richly different experiences.
For many of these people, we know something of their story but less about their thoughts. For the philosophical grounding of the Black tradition of arms, we look more to the literate, leadership class. And here we might worry how much the rhetoric really matched practical commitment. This worry is diminished by the evidence that many in the leadership class truly did walk it as they talked it. As tomorrow’s post will show, this is vividly demonstrated in the words and deeds of America’s preeminent Black intellectual, W.E.B. Dubois, who paced the floor following the 1906 Atlanta race riot, with “a Winchester double-barreled shotgun and two dozen rounds of shells filled with buckshot.” And within the bourgeoning leadership class of the early twentieth century, Dubois is just the tip of the story.