Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

The WCTU and Lynching, 1893

The WCTU and Lynching in 1893

The year 1893 saw a confrontation between Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells brewing. In anti-lynching lectures in the spring of that year, Wells repeatedly mentioned Willard as an example of poor leadership by white American reformers. She pointed to the comments Willard had made in the 1890 New York Voice interview as evidence.

Willard, however, either did not take notice of Wells's critique, or did not comment. In the fall of 1893, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) passed a resolution condemning lynching at its annual convention. Willard could not attend the convention due to illness, and she did not speak publicly on the resolution or on her past comments.

Ida B. Wells Challenges Frances Willard

After the publication of her pamphlet Southern Horrors (1892), Ida B. Wells continued to gain fame as a reformer. In the spring of 1893, she traveled to England for a speaking tour. She hoped to attract British support for her anti-lynching cause.

In her talks, Wells told her audiences that American moral leaders had failed to speak out against lynching. In response, people often asked her about Willard, who was "well known and highly esteemed" in England. Wells told them about Willard's comments in the New York Voice interview from 1890, where Willard had portrayed black men as a threat to white women. As Wells's research showed, white Southerners often justified lynchings of black men by claiming that the victims had raped white women, even when there was no evidence.

But, as Wells wrote later in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, since she didn't have a copy of the interview to share, her audiences were often skeptical:

I had very keen recollection of [Willard's] first trip throughout the South in her capacity as president of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She had been figuratively wined and dined by the best white people of the South. She had made an opening for and received recognition of her organization such as had never occurred before. She was charmed by the culture and hospitality of those by whom she was entertained. When she went back North there appeared an interview in the New York Voice, the organ of the temperance forces, in which she practically condoned lynchings. Every Negro newspaper in the South quoted and criticized that interview. Marked copies of their journals were sent to her, my own among the number. But so far as anyone knew, Miss Willard had never retracted or explained that interview. Having this in mind I could not truthfully say that Miss Willard had ever said anything to condemn lynching; on the contrary she had seemed to condone it in her famous interview after returning from her first visit in the South. Of course, my statements were challenged by temperance followers. Not having a copy of the interview with me, I could not verify my statement.

The WCTU Opposes Lynching

A few months later, at its national convention in the fall of 1893, the WCTU passed the anti-lynching resolution that appears below. Though the convention always passed resolutions on a variety of issues, this was the first time the WCTU had addressed lynching. Susan Fessenden, the Massachusetts WCTU leader who sponsored it, said later that the resolution was accepted without much controversy.

It's not clear what prompted Fessenden to bring forward the resolution. Wells's anti-lynching campaign had been attracting more and more attention, but we do not know whether anyone in the WCTU knew that Wells had been mentioning Willard by name as someone who "seemed to condone" lynching. Perhaps Fessenden had learned about the issue and simply felt it was important for the WCTU to take a position. The minutes do not contain any comment from Willard herself--she had missed the convention due to ill health.

Like the WCTU, many other whites who criticized lynching did so because it was outside the judicial system or “without due process of law.” Wells believed that this argument ignored her findings that only one third of lynching victims had even been charged with rape. 

It was not until the following year, 1894, that Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells would come into open conflict.

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