A Martyr for the People – Thomas Moss

Kroger and Publix, Wal-Mart and Target, every successful business has its competition. There’s inspired competition – the kind that motivates you, challenges you, and makes you chase after success. And then there’s competition that only wants to see you lose and drive you out of business. The story of Thomas Moss is one that undeniably captures the trauma of competition that black entrepreneurs faced while working to acquire wealth post-slavery.

In 1889, Thomas Moss and 11 prominent black investors, opened The People’s Grocery. The store was located just outside Memphis in a neighborhood called the “Curve.” News of this black owned business spread quickly and black people in the community began to feel empowered. 

Moss was motivated to attain wealth and invest into his community. A postman by day, he used earnings delivering mail to invest in his start-up idea of a community grocery store. He delivered mail by day and ran People’s Grocery by night. And, as family man in the community, his popularity lent great success to his entrepreneurial pursuits. 

With this cooperative venture for the store, a unique structure of its kind in those days, he ran along corporate lines and made his store the 5th largest wholesale grocery market in the country. Moss was an instant success. His store brought capital to the black community while also instilling a sense of pride. 

Sadly, his social nor economic status was able to save him from the racial hostility of the South. Across from Moss’ store was another store owned by a white man, and many white people in the community were not pleased. Many felt as if they shouldn’t compete for the black dollar and the People’s Grocery quickly became an enemy of their white competitors. Moss was confident. He ignored the animosity and persisted to thrive in business. He knew the blacks in the community loved him and would support his grocery store.

In March 1892, a series of racially charged fights broke out outside of the store. Two of Moss’ workers went outside to ease the tension. Moss along with his two workers were arrested and later dragged out of jail by an angry mob of 75 white men. They all were publicly lynched while in police custody. ⁠

Moss was asked if he had any last words and he stated, “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice here.” This lynching became known as the Lynchings at the Curve. ⁠Ida B. Wells, a famed anti-lynching journalist and a dear friend to Moss, was set to show through media that lynching had become a tool of economic terrorism and disenfranchisement and became a vocal champion to broadcast the lynchings as they spread especially among black male business owners.

Many black entrepreneurs lynched across the South were people who dared to be their own boss or were perceived as having too much ambition, property or talent. Moss’ lynching, like many others, was framed as an organized act of extralegal violence and a punishment for becoming an economic competitor to whites.

The success and sacrifice of Thomas Moss has major takeaways for us today. The idea that discrimination is alive and well is true but the promise that opportunities are endless for those who fearlessly pursue entrepreneurship is even greater.

For that, we have martyrs like Thomas Moss to thank.

 

This post is the part of The Bag Collector series – a spotlight posts that feature serial entrepreneurs of color each recognized for their ability to diversify in business, wealth and investments. These individuals exemplify what it means to be creative and unapologetic in pursuit of entrepreneurial excellence, and ultimately collect the “bag” then use it to make greater community impact.