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. If a state had a black union and a white union, delegates from each one would attend 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.

Willard defended this policy as something that both black and white women wanted. The reality is more complicated. Some black women may have preferred to do their work without also having to deal with racism from white peers, as WCTU leader Frances Harper suggested in a speech from 1888 on "The Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Colored Woman." However, Harper argued, separation should be looked upon as a temporary measure until "the members of the farther South will subordinate the spirit of caste to the spirit of Christ" and overcome their race prejudice. In effect, this policy allowed white women to exclude black women from their unions.

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

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, pictured at right, was a WCTU leader, poet, and abolitionist. A committed "temperance woman," Harper joined the WCTU in the 1880s and became Superintendent of its "Department of Work Among the Colored People."

Harper believed in the potential of interracial cooperation among women, but she emphasized the work that white women needed to do to make such cooperation succeed. She argued that white women bore as much responsibility as white men in the oppression of black people. They had a moral duty, she maintained, to educate themselves out of race 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 devote more time and resources to organizing 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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