Sarah L. Silkey joins the chorus of scholars trying to shake American historians out of their provincialism with her book, Black Woman Reformer, which reimagines the antilynching crusade of Ida B. Wells as part of a broader transatlantic social-reform movement. As early as the 1830s, British perceptions of lynching reflected the rhetoric of its American defenders who rationalized extralegal violence as a form of “frontier justice” necessary in remote towns in the American West. Silkey argues that, when Wells traveled to Britain in 1893 and 1894, she cultivated relationships within this reform network to challenge [End Page 261] how many religious and political leaders in Britain viewed lynching. Wells shifted the discourse on lynching away from “frontier justice” and the “black rapist” myth to lay bare the white supremacist intentions of lynch mobs that murdered African Americans. Wells’s British allies, in turn, published scathing editorials condemning lynching and appealed to southern politicians to prevent mob violence and punish perpetrators. These politicians found themselves caught between a white constituency that enthusiastically celebrated lynching and, Silkey contends, potential British investors wary of the lawlessness and barbarity of mob rule. Although this surge of British antilynching activism quickly receded, these debates compelled some southern governors to temporarily adopt (spotty, half-hearted) measures aimed at curbing lynching.
Despite Silkey’s commendable impulse to challenge the myopia of American exceptionalism with her transatlantic framework, her book suffers from a myopia of its own. Her analysis is often disconnected from the very economic, political, and social contexts that gave meaning to lynching. She convincingly illustrates how Wells reframed the discourse on lynching, yet only in passing does Silkey address the ways in which lynching changed over the course of the nineteenth century as a result of major historical shifts like emancipation and the rise of scientific racism. This broader historical context accounts for why white southern anxieties about the racial hierarchy increased, why lynching became a predominantly southern, predominantly white-on-black crime by the mid-1880s, and why the “black rapist” myth emerged. What remained consistent across the nineteenth century was that the social function of lynching hinged on the race of the victim. Silkey’s discussion of antebellum lynching, however, glosses over distinctions between the lynching of white gamblers and the lynching of enslaved men accused of planning an insurrection. Both cases made an example of “dangerous” elements in society, but the moral threat posed by the gamblers and the threat to the system of slavery posed by the insurrectionists differed precisely because of the inescapable reality of white supremacy and the violence endemic to [End Page 262] slavery. Understanding the uphill battle Wells fought against lynching requires more than a discussion of white perceptions of lynching in published accounts; it also requires an analysis of how extralegal violence shaped social relationships, culture, and identity in practice.
Silkey’s research spans an impressive range of archives on both sides of the Atlantic, and her findings shed new light on Wells’s struggles and strategies as she made her appeals for racial justice abroad. But ultimately her claim that this transatlantic reform network generated more than just publicity, although suggestive, remains tenuous without more substantial evidence that economic and diplomatic interests were at stake. She contends that British reformers put pressure on southern politicians who required outside capital to develop regional industries and infrastructure, but her sources reveal little about what British firms and British banks thought about the negative publicity generated by these reformers. Even if reformers jeopardized British investments, how important were foreign investors relative to northern sources of capital? The limited impact of this transatlantic reform network does not detract from Wells’s antilynching crusade. Rather, that her appeals and those of her supporters fell largely on deaf ears further speaks to how deeply entrenched and vigorously defended white supremacy was under Jim Crow.
MARI N. CRABTREE teaches African American studies at the College of Charleston. Her book manuscript is a cultural history titled My...