Negroes and the Gun: Advice from Ida B. Wells–A Winchester “in every Black home”

ida-b-wells-barnettSurveying the landscape in the summer of 1892, Ida B. Wells advised, that “the Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every Black home.”

This was no empty rhetorical jab. She was advancing a considered personal security policy and specifically referencing two recent episodes where armed Blacks saved their neighbors from lynch mobs.

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.

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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…

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