Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells Abroad

Wells and Willard in London

Also in 1893, Ida B. Wells made her first trip to England for a speaking tour. She hoped to attract British support for her anti-lynching cause. Writing later in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, Wells explained that when she told her audiences that American moral leaders had failed to speak out against lynching, people often asked her about Willard, who was "well known and highly esteemed" in England.

My answer to these queries was that neither of those great exponents of Christianity in our country had ever spoken out in condemnation of lynching, but seemed on the contrary disposed to overlook that fashionable pastime of the South. ... 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.

In February of the next year, 1894, Wells returned to England for a second lecture circuit. Her ally Florence Balgarnie, a British temperance activist, had invited her to speak to the British Women's Temperance Association (BWTA) in early May. The BWTA's president, Lady Henry Somerset, was a close friend of Frances Willard. In fact, Willard had been staying with her at her home in Surrey for nearly two years.

Before departing, Wells had agreed to write a series of columns for a Chicago newspaper called the Inter-Ocean. In these pieces, she often mentioned Willard by name. In her column of March 24, for example, Wells wrote:

I find wherever I go that we are deprived the expression of condemnation such hangings and burnings deserve, because the world believes negro men are despoilers of the virtue of white women. ... Unfortunately for the negro race and for themselves, Miss Frances E. Willard and Bishops Fitzgerald and Haygood have published utterances in confirmation of this slander.

To prove her case about Willard, Wells had found a copy of the Voice interview from 1890. She arranged to have it reprinted in an anti-racist British magazine called Fraternity.

In her column of May 6, 1894, however, Wells's tone about Willard changed. She attended a reception the night before her speech at the BWTA, and her report of it is below:

However, the issue of Fraternity with Willard's interview and accompanying critique from Wells had already been sent to the printers.

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