Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Director's Reflections

Lori Osborne

Executive Director and Museum Director
Frances Willard House Museum

These remarks were delivered at an event related to the Truth-Telling project on November 19, 2019.

Thank you all for being here tonight. My name is Lori Osborne and I am the Director of the Frances Willard House Museum.

We are here tonight because more than 100 years ago two very strong and powerful women leaders could not find common ground over an issue of great importance. We are hoping to find a little bit of that common ground tonight.

One of the women, Frances Willard, could not see that her failure to directly express support for the anti-lynching movement, and her use of demeaning and incendiary words to describe African-Americans, was morally wrong and potentially harmful, even life-threatening. The other, Ida B. Wells, would not let Willard remain in a lofty position of power and influence while acting and speaking in such a way.

Their conflict played out in the social media of the day – newspapers, publicly circulated letters, and speeches at meetings and conventions. For several years, the two exchanged harsh words and pleaded their cases, as did their allies. Willard and the organization she led, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, passed formal resolutions against lynching although they continued to disagree with Wells’ claims about the causes. Willard did not apologize for her use of racist language but her public calls for support of Wells’ campaign somewhat salvaged her moral reputation.

At the Frances Willard House Museum and Archives, we have known the basic outlines of this conflict for several years. Scholars have written about it and we have discussed it among ourselves. We also knew that the community was aware of the conflict - with NU students, community members and others asking serious questions and wondering why we would remain in the business of honoring someone with this legacy.

Two years ago, we decided to do a comprehensive research project to uncover the full story of the conflict. We began with a team of Loyola graduate students who searched our archives and  many other resources  for the records that would tell the story – and compiled a database of sources, presenting them in draft form as an online exhibit. In spring of 2018 we hired one of those students, Ella Wagner, to complete the gathering of sources and create a final version of the exhibit which she will present tonight. Our goal was to make the sources we had found in our collection and in other places available in one place, so that everyone could examine them, learn from them what happened, and decide for themselves how to judge those involved.

What we discovered did not surprise us. The language Willard used, and her unwillingness to treat Wells and her anti-lynching cause with the respect and seriousness it deserved, were part of the racist climate of her time. What is so hard to reconcile is that Willard was in many ways so ahead of her time. The WCTU was one the first women’s organizations that had black and white women as members. Though it was segregated on the local level, its state, national and world leaders would meet together regardless of their race or national origin. Willard should have been able to see that she needed to lead on this cause just as she had on so many others. She should have led with all the women of the WCTU in mind, including the African American women who were members and leaders. She also should have seen Wells for the rising leader that she was.

Willard and Wells were 30 years apart in age and really had so much in common: Wells, as had many African American leaders from the antebellum period forward, supported the temperance cause.  Willard should have seen that expanding her leadership against racism might have played a key role in changing the racial climate of our country – and might have helped address the growing white supremacy around her.

Instead, she chose not to see and she bought into and voiced racist stereotypes that fed this climate.

All of this is challenging to talk about but critical to do so in our world today. Speaking for myself, working on this project has required some self-exploration and re-examination of my own understandings of the past. But, more importantly, we as a museum have had to explore this issue together – and will continue to do so long into the future. History museums and archives are in the business of sharing and displaying history, but one of the hard questions we’ve had to ask ourselves on this project is how do we as a museum work to dismantle rather than simply display the racist past of our country. For me, it is that question that will linger.

We believe that telling Willard’s story – and of the significant work that the WCTU did under her leadership and beyond to grow women as leaders – is still critical to telling the full story of our nation’s history. But we also believe that telling of her failures as a leader is important as well. We do not need perfect leaders and saints – we need humans who are willing to face their failings and grow from their mistakes.

So, here we are. We hope you will join us in this exploration, and that it even may inspire self-exploration, both individually and as a community. As we have explored this controversy over the last 2 years, we have all been struck by its resonances with issues today around race, gender, and activism. And as the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment (women’s suffrage) approaches in 2020, we can see how this story and the larger story of racism in the women’s movement reverberate today.

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