Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells Abroad

Wells and Willard in London

In the spring and summer of 1894, Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells came into direct conflict over the question of lynching and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for the first time, while both women were visiting and working in England.
In February of 1894, Wells returned to England for a second lecture tour. 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.

The "Voice" Interview Returns

Before departing for England, Wells had agreed to write a series of columns for a Chicago newspaper called the Inter-Ocean. In these pieces, she reported on her travels, the speeches she gave, and the reception she received in England. As she had done the year before, Wells often mentioned Frances Willard by name, along with other American Christian leaders, to call attention to their lack of leadership against lynching.

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.

Though the WCTU had passed a resolution against lynching a few months earlier, Frances Willard had been absent from the convention and apparently did not comment on the issue. Neither had she addressed the interview she had given in 1890, which was the basis of Wells's criticism. In that interview, Willard had characterized black men as threatening to white women--a portrayal that Wells had shown helped to justify mob murders of black men in the South.

To give weight to her criticism of Willard, Wells had brought a copy of that 1890 interview with her to England. At the beginning of her trip, in February or March of 1894, she arranged to have it reprinted in an anti-racist British magazine called Fraternity.

Wells and Willard Meet

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 met Willard for the first time. She wrote in a later piece that Willard was the "personification of kindness" during their encounter.

We only have this account from Wells about what they discussed. However, as Wells writes below, Willard gave her the impression that she now understood where she had been wrong about the lynching issue:


The following day, Wells gave her speech at the BWTA meeting. The assembly passed an anti-lynching resolution, although Wells reported that Willard did not speak on the question.

However, the issue of Fraternity magazine containing the Voice interview had already been printed and was scheduled to be distributed. Given the passage of the BWTA resolution and her positive conversation with Willard, publication of the interview at that moment placed Wells in a tricky position. Wells's ally in the BWTA, Florence Balgarnie, was especially worried about the reaction of BWTA president Lady Henry Somerset, Willard's host and friend.

In her autobiography, Wells wrote that Balgarnie called Lady Henry Somerset to tell her that the article would be coming out. Somerset, according to Wells, threatened that if it did,

she would use her influence to make sure that I got no further opportunity to be heard in Great Britain.

Wells did not back down. A few days later, in early May of 1894, the issue of Fraternity appeared.

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