TThis is a book about an important and forgotten leader in black women’s civil rights, and a fearless New York City private investigator who solved a murder on the New Jersey shore in which a black worker was wrongfully accused of the crime.
Ida B Wells and Raymond Schindler’s “Moral Audacity and Perseverance” are the subjects of Alex Tresniowski, along with the virulent racism that prevailed from Tennessee to the New Jersey shore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wells’s story is by far the most important part of this book. One of eight children of an enslaved person, she anticipated Rosa Parks’ courage for seven decades when she refused to give up her seat in a white-only car on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwest train line in the summer of 1883.
Although he was barely five feet tall, the driver who ordered her out of the car needed the help of two other white passengers, after she bit him on the hand.
In 1875, Congress passed a civil rights law that gave blacks the right to sue for discrimination in public places, including the railroads. And even though the supreme court had rejected that law in October 1883, a month before Wells sued the railroad for damages, he won a ruling in his favor from a Tennessee judge, a former union infantryman, who awarded him $ 500.
The Memphis Appeal Advocate headline was “A Dark Damsel Gets Verdict Against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad: What It Takes to Put a Colored School Teacher in a Smoking Car.” But Wells’s victory was painfully short-lived. In 1887, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, denied his damages, and ordered him to pay $ 200 in costs.
Tresniowski easily hooks the reader with the story of this brave young African-American woman, who became a journalist and a prominent crusade against lynching. She became famous with an editorial in her own newspaper, Memphis Free Speech & Headlight, in which she declared that “no one in this section of the country believes the old naked lie that black men rape white women.”
That was more than the whites of Tennessee could bear. While he was out of town in the north, a mob broke into his newspaper, a pistol whipped one of his colleagues and destroyed his typesetting machines. He left Tennessee for good in 1892 and moved to Brooklyn to continue his work. In October of that year, a speech he gave at the Lyric Theater in Manhattan about his friend Thomas Moss, the victim of a lynching, brought his audience to tears.
Wells is a crucial figure in the history of the civil rights movement. In 2018, when the New York Times finally got to running his obituaryAlmost nine decades after her death, he identified her as the most famous black woman of her time.
Tresniowski could easily have written a compelling book on Wells. But for reasons that are mysterious, he has decided to divide his volume in two, alternating between Wells’s life and a crazy story of the murder of a 10-year-old white girl, Marie Smith, in 1910, on the brand new beach. town of Asbury Park, NJ, and the wrongful arrest of a black worker, Tom Williams, for the crime.
The main protagonist of the New Jersey murder story is Schindler, the private detective who worked for 77 days and even faked another murder in a ultimately successful effort to extract a confession from Frank Heideman, a German immigrant and the real culprit.
The book lurches back and forth between these two stories, which are loosely linked by the history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Ida Wells had some role in founding the great civil rights organization, which represented Tom Williams. The reader waits 300 pages for the author to establish a more substantial connection between his two narratives. He never does.
Tresniowski would have produced a much more compelling volume if it had been limited to the heroism and persistence of Ida B Wells, rather than adding the distraction of an extremely lengthy account of an unrelated crime.
The Rope: A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP en published in the United States by Simon & Schuster
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism