Thomas Moss symbolized the urban entrepreneurial class of African Americans that emerged in the decades following the Civil War. Moss invested in a community-owned grocery store, the People’s Grocery, which he managed at night after spending his days working as a postman. The People’s Grocery was located at the southeast corner of what is today Mississippi Blvd and Walker Ave, known then as “the Curve” for the distinctive turn that streetcars made at the corner. During an era in which African Americans were subject to racial subjugation, the People’s Grocery stood as an emblem of pride for the community.
William Barrett, a white man and proprietor of a rival store in the area, felt economically threatened by the People’s Grocery. After he was injured in a scuffle that took place in the Curve on 2 March 1892, Barrett determined to use the incident to discredit Moss’s establishment. Barrett blamed his injuries on a young worker at the People’s Grocery, William Stewart. Barrett arrived at the People’s Grocery the next day with a police officer to arrest Stewart. Instead, Barrett and the officer were met by Clint McDowell, a grocery clerk, who refused to give up his co-worker’s location. Furious, Barrett struck McDowell with a revolver, losing his grip in the process. McDowell’s athleticism got the better of Barrett. McDowell grabbed the fallen revolver and shot at Barrett, barely missing him. Barrett and the officer retreated. McDowell remarked in the Appeal-Avalanche, “Being the stronger, I got the best of the scrimmage.” This statement only fueled Barrett’s anger. Subsequently, Barrett notified the authorities of the incident. Within a few days Barrett was deputized by a Shelby County Court judge, with permission to form a group to get revenge on those who offended him at the People’s Grocery.
Well aware that an attack was imminent, the patrons of the People’s Grocery asked local authorities for protection. The city of Memphis refused, as the Curve was located just outside of the city, thus outside their jurisdiction. Faced with no other option, a group of men armed themselves inside the People’s Grocery. On Saturday, March 5, Barrett and his men marched towards the Curve. A gunfight ensued in which three of Barrett’s men were injured.
The Memphis Commercial and the Appeal Avalanche inaccurately characterized the attack as evidence that the African American tenants of the People’s Grocery were planning a race war against whites, when in fact those inside the People’s Grocery were simply defending their establishment from attack...