Founded in 1888 by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale, the Memphis Free Speech was published on the grounds of Nightingale’s church, the First (Beale Street) Baptist Church. The name of the paper changed to Free Speech and Headlight when J. L. Fleming, a newspaperman from Crittendon County, Arkansas, joined Nightingale. Fleming had edited the Marion Headlight until a white mob “liberated” the county from black rule and ran him out of town. Ida B. Wells, a local teacher and community activist, was invited to join the staff, and she bought a third share of the newspaper.
The Free Speech and Headlight quickly became the most radical and talked about newspaper in Memphis. In the late 1880s, as the de jure segregation and black male disfranchisement movements hardened racial lines in Memphis, the editors often railed against the loss of black rights. These attacks against white rule did not go unnoticed by city authorities. Wrongly blaming the moderate Nightingale for the attacks, city authorities used an internal church squabble to have him arrested in 1891. Nightingale understood the message and fled the city, leaving Wells and Fleming to express their more radical views on racial issues.
Using the columns of the Free Speech, Wells launched her antilynching campaign. In one of her most famous columns, Wells attacked the supposed reason for the lynching of black men, the rape of white women. Suggesting that white women only claimed rape after their illicit affairs with black men had been discovered, she cautioned the lynchers that their activities threatened to sully the reputations of the South’s fairer sex.
The Free Speech received national attention in 1892 for its coverage of the so-called Curve Riot. Not a riot at all, the Curve Riot was an attack on the People’s Grocery Store by a group of undercover police serving a warrant on the black-owned business. Will Barret, the store’s white competitor, had convinced a local court that the People’s Grocery had became a nuisance. The court ordered the owners arrested. Fearing an attack, supporters of the People’s Grocery armed themselves to defend the store. In the ensuing melee three deputies were wounded. Crying “race riot,” other armed whites joined the police and eventually captured and arrested over thirty African Americans, including three of the store’s owners: Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart. A mob seized the three from the jail and lynched them. Wells wrote passionately of the atrocity and advised her readers to abandon Memphis and move to the western territories. Many followed her advice. After Edward Ward Carmack, editor of the Memphis Commercial, demanded retaliation against “the black wench” for her denunciation of the lynchings, the offices of the Free Speech were demolished. Fortunately, Wells was out of town when the attack occurred, and she did not return to the South for another thirty years.
No copy of the Free Speech survives. As with the other twenty-five black-owned newspapers of the era, no library or archive has preserved copies. Our only knowledge of the once thriving and outspoken African American newspaper comes from reprinted articles extant in other newspapers.