Today’s blog post is by Dr. Trichita M. Chestnut, Deputy Director Indexing/Declassification Review Division at the National Declassification Center (NWD)
Ida B. Wells was among many individuals whose letters bombarded the Department of Justice demanding Federal help to fight racial violence. These letters are found among Year Files, 1884 1903, located in RG 60, General Records of the Department of Justice (DOJ). This file consists of many letters, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and telegrams pertaining to the lynching of Postmaster Frazier B. Baker with his two-year-old daughter, Julia, in Lake City, South Carolina, on February 22, 1898 (a date corroborated by various lynching lists and contemporary newspaper accounts, though Wells-Barnett remarks that the lynching occurred on February 24).
In the early hours of February 22, the Baker family awoke to discover that a fire had been deliberately set to the back of their home where the local
post office was located. As the family tried to flee from their burning home, a white mob fired upon them with guns. Baker and his daughter Julia were shot to death, and their bodies were left to cremate in the burning home, while his wife Lavinia and three of their remaining five children were wounded. The lynchers had become enraged by Baker’s appointment as postmaster by President William McKinley three months earlier.
Wells, now Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett upon her marriage to Chicago attorney Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, expressed her frustrations about these two senseless lynchings the best way she knew how—with pen and paper. She sent a typewritten, four-page letter to President William B. McKinley, under cover of a letter by Republican Senator Shelby Moore Cullom of Illinois, dated March 19, 1898, in which he introduces Wells-Barnett to President McKinley, urging him to give much consideration to what she has to say regarding the murder of the postmaster and his daughter and any “counsel and advice you think proper in the premises.” The President later forwarded the document and the cover letter to DOJ for further action.
In the typewritten, four page letter addressed to “His Excellency, William B. McKinley, President of the United States,” Wells-Barnett appeals on behalf of the Ida B. Well’s Women’s Club of Chicago, Illinois, for the President to apprehend and punish those responsible for the shooting. They seek support for the widow and children stating that “the nation owes that family the support and maintenance of which they were deprived by that brutal mob, in so far as money can requite their loss, these helpless ones should be indemnified.” She believes that their request for the family’s compensation will “not be in vain.” She notes that President McKinley had already set a precedent whereby the U.S. paid a considerable amount of money to countries from which lynched aliens had come. She cites two examples of recommendations by President McKinley that Italy and Mexico receive appropriations from Congress for the lynchings of three Italians and one Mexican citizen in the United States. Furthermore, the heirs of three lynched Italians in New Orleans were paid $25,000. In closing, she writes that we “come under the Stars and Stripes, believing that the plea of an outraged American citizen should be as potent for protection and justice as the demand of a frowning Power.”
In a second handwritten, two page letter addressing “Mr. Dawes,” referring to Republican Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, she expresses urgency for President McKinley to make a recommendation to Congress regarding the manuscript (most likely referencing the lynching of the postmaster and his daughter) that she left in the possession of Senator Dawes. She speaks directly to the injured widow and her children, who are in need of medical and financial support as well as food, shelter, and raiment.
No documents were found in the files to indicate a response to Wells-Barnett’s two letters appealing for assistance to the remaining survivors of the Baker family. But after 14 months of extensive investigation by the DOJ, a Federal grand jury found that there was sufficient evidence to charge 13 white men with conspiracy to deprive Frazier and Julia Baker of their civil rights. Still, after deliberations at the trial, a divided all-white male jury produced a mistrial. The DOJ did not prosecute the case further.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett—journalist, leader, and crusader—received national attention for her efforts in the anti-lynching movement. She will be remembered always as an African American woman of courage and conviction.
Other records related to this topic can be found in RG 60 Year File #1898–3463; Year Files, 1884–1903; General Records of the Department of Justice, Record Group 60; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.