Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells


“The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt. The grog shop is its centre of power. The safety of women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities at this moment, so that men dare not go beyond the sight of their own roof-tree.”

A white woman named Frances Willard spoke these words in an interview with the New York newspaper The Voice in October 1890. Many white Americans held racist beliefs in the late 1800s. But Willard, the president of the influential Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was a famous social reformer.

Under her leadership, the WCTU worked to expose the evils of alcohol. But it also committed to working for women’s right to an education, legal protection, and the vote, among a host of other social issues. At a moment when few reform organizations had an interracial membership, the WCTU included black and Native American women in its ranks.

Black teacher and journalist Ida B. Wells knew of Willard’s reputation as a moral leader when she read the Voice interview in the fall of 1890. The piece made her furious. As Wells launched a campaign against lynching in the South, she publicly criticized Willard and other white moral reformers who failed to take a clear stand against the violence.

Wells argued that the kind of language Willard had used in the interview painted black men as violent criminals who threatened white women and children. When Willard called black voters “dark-faced mobs,” Wells wrote, it made it easier for white Southerners to justify the vicious murders of hundreds of them. It also made it more comfortable for white Northerners to look the other way.

Frances Willard was far from the only white public figure to make these kinds of racist statements in the 1890s. But Ida B. Wells recognized that because Willard had a reputation as a forward-thinking reformer, she was more vulnerable to criticism of her moral leadership. Wells took advantage of the opportunity. In 1894, she brought a copy of the original interview with her on a speaking tour in England and had it republished by a London newspaper, with an accompanying column calling Willard an “apologist” for lynching.

Willard, also in England for a temperance convention, was embarrassed and angry. She and her supporters saw Wells’s criticism as an attack on her character. Willard had “not an atom of race prejudice,” she insisted. Moreover, her parents had been devoted abolitionists. How could anyone call her a racist?

Although the WCTU eventually did pass a resolution opposing lynching, racism remained (and remains) a powerful source of division and conflict within women's reform and activist movements to the present day.

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