Ames, Jesse Daniel

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Jesse Daniel Ames (November 2, 1883–February 21, 1972) was a southern progressive, suffragist, and proponent of rights for African Americans. Ames rose to national prominence as an anti-lynching advocate during the 1930s. She was born in Palestine, Texas, the third of James and Laura Daniel's four children. Three years after graduating from the "ladies annex" of the local college in 1902, she married army surgeon Roger Post Ames. When Roger died in 1914, Ames entered into a life of social reform, eventually holding a leadership position in the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC). In 1930, Ames founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL). As historian Jacquelyn Hall explains, Ames believed that lynchers justified their crimes on cultural assumptions that degraded white women as well as black men. A women's campaign to end lynching, Ames contended, could be particularly effective in exposing the myths that gave rise to "lynch law" in the South.

Historian Christopher Waldrep notes that Ames's narrow definition of the crime was central to her efforts to achieve a lynchless year in the United States. She held to the popular view that a murder could be considered a lynching only if it received community sanction. Her reform tactics thus centered on efforts to deprive lynchers of a supportive environment in which to operate. Ames believed that whites would cease to lynch if they thought they no longer had the community's backing. A strict definition ensured that newspaper accounts of lynching would be rare, suggesting that most southern whites did not consider the practice normal or routine. Stripped of a supportive environment, whites would hesitate to lynch, according to Ames. The ASWPL's goal of a lynchless year, as Waldrep notes, demanded this narrow definition.

Ames's insistence on a strict definition of lynching increasingly put her at odds with other anti-lynching activists. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for example, pushed for a broadened definition as it vied for members with rival organizations on the left that sought to eclipse it as the premier anti-lynching organization and defender of African-American rights. The NAACP eventually abandoned the established view of lynching, arguing instead that race-based murders perpetrated by individuals who operated without community support should be considered lynchings. The dispute between ASWPL and the NAACP revealed a fundamental difference in the way in which the two organizations understood the nature of the crisis confronting the New South. Ames and the ASWPL saw lynching as a blight on an otherwise healthy southern society, whereas the NAACP regarded the crime as merely symptomatic of a larger problem. The NAACP recognized that the abolition of lynching would not necessarily signal an end to the pervasive and intractable racism that plagued the South. Ames's definition, however, proved the more persuasive.

On May 9, 1940, Ames announced that for the first time in the history of the New South a year had passed without a single lynching. Defenders of the more expansive definition, however, argued that Ames's pronouncement was premature. As Waldrep suggests, the debate has endured.

Ames's 1940 announcement that the ASWPL had reached its goal signaled the beginning of the end of the organization. Ames returned to her work in the CIC but felt increasingly at odds with those directing the course of modern liberalism. Ames, forced to retreat from the national political scene, turned her attention to local reform and to the strained relationship with her family. She died in an Austin, Texas, nursing home in 1972.



Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930. 1993.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. Revolt against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign against Lynching. 1979.

Miller, Kathleen Atkinson. "The Ladies and the Lynchers: A Look at the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching." Southern Studies 17 (1978): 221–240.

Waldrep, Christopher. "War of Words: The Controversy over the Definition of Lynching, 1899-1940." Journal of Southern History 66 (2000): 75–100.

Sarah E. Gardner