Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Frances Harper and Black Women in the WCTU

Black Women in the WCTU

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was rare for an organization run mostly by white women in the late nineteenth century in that it included both white and black members. However, this does not mean that black members were always treated equitably.
In the 1880s, as part of an effort to recruit Southern white women to the WCTU, Frances Willard and the national leadership decided to allow state and local unions to form separate chapters for black and white women. Willard defended this policy as something that both black and white women wanted, and it is possible that some black women preferred to do their work without also having to deal with racism from white peers. Nevertheless, this policy allowed white women to exclude black women from their unions.
If a state had a black union and a white union, delegates from each one would be seated on an equal footing at the national conventions and could serve on executive committees and hold leadership posts. Women like Sarah Woodson Early, Lucy Thurman, and Frances Harper (all pictured) became leaders within the WCTU, including running its department dedicated to "Work Among the Colored People." However, the department rarely received enough funding, and its leaders faced difficulty in getting many white members to commit to organizing black women.

The General Federation of Women's Clubs--context

Frances Harper and the "Department of Work Among Colored People"

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, pictured at right, was a WCTU leader, poet, and abolitionist. Born into a free black family in 1825, Harper was educated in Baltimore until her family fled the city after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. After short stints as a teacher, in the 1850s Harper joined the abolitionist movement and became a traveling lecturer. After the Civil War she was involved in the temperance and suffrage movements and worked to improve women's education and the welfare of recently freed slaves. She also continued to write and publish her novels and poetry.
A committed "temperance woman," Harper joined the WCTU in the 1880s and became Superintendent of its "Department of Work Among the Colored People." Harper's words, and her choice to join a mostly-white organization, demonstrate her commitment to interracial cooperation. Though she believed that education and resources were necessary for "race progress," she also thought that white women bore as much responsibility as white men in the oppression of black people and that they needed to educate themselves out of racial prejudice.

The below document is one of Harper's reports on the activity of her department. It was published in the WCTU's official newspaper, the Union Signal, in 1885. In it, Harper urges the white women in the WCTU to commit to organizing for temperance among black women. She reminds them that they, as white women, have benefited from generations of wealth and education that black women have not had.

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