MLK50: Lynching of three black businessmen a sad chapter in city’s past

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — One hundred twenty-five years ago, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and William Stewart — three black entrepreneurs — opened People's General Store at Mississippi Boulevard and Walker Avenue.

But their competitive spirit cost them their lives.

"They opened a grocery and it was called the People's Grocery and it was near a grocery that was white-owned," said Thomas Carlson, founder of the Lynching Sites Project Memphis. "They started succeeding and they took business away from the white grocer."

The police came over and harassed the three men in the black grocery store, Carlson said. Shots were fired and a fight went on and they were put in jail.

"These were family men, men of the church and they were dragged out of the jail downtown ... and taken up North Second Street all the way up to the rail yard at the far end of Second Street.

"They were murdered up there, all three of them."

The chilling details could send chills down any person's spine, and even more disturbing in some cases children were released from school to watch.

"In some cases the paper covered it as if it were a football game, except three people had been murdered."

The lynchings at the curve brings up a painful part of Memphis history. Carlson says it's a horrific part of the past that echoes the ideals of Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech — and his plight that centered around removing the stronghold of oppression in America.

"We have to acknowledge it and accept the healing that comes with it."

It's an uncomfortable part of the city's complicated and difficult past but through remembering the three businessmen, Dr. King's legacy lives on.