Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells


Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

In 1894 and 1895, Frances Willard, the renowned president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist, fought a war of words in the international press. In 1890, Willard had made racist statements in a newspaper interview while in Atlanta, Georgia for a WCTU convention. Four years later, in 1894, Wells publicized the interview to pressure Willard to support her anti-lynching work. The resulting conflict attracted international attention and condemnation of the WCTU and Willard.

Until today, this story has never been told at the Frances Willard House Museum and Archives, the institution dedicated to Willard's life and legacy. Now, it is the subject of this digital exhibit, Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells. The exhibit explores the details of the conflict and examines Willard's failure of leadership on the question of lynching. Its purpose is to help us understand not only what this story means for Willard's legacy, but also what it can tell us about the larger history of racism in American women's movements.

Background: Frances Willard, Temperance, and Women's Suffrage

As President of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Frances Willard was known for her work to prevent the negative impact of alcohol on society, especially women and children, and her lifelong mission to advance women’s rights. By the mid-1880s, the WCTU was the largest organization of women in the United States, with a broad social reform agenda, and had grown into a worldwide and diverse organization.

Under Willard's leadership, the WCTU had endorsed women's suffrage. At the time, it was still considered a radical idea, even by many women. Willard argued that the only way women could protect their homes and families from the threat of alcohol was to win the right to vote and make prohibition the law, along with other reforms to improve women's lives. Through the WCTU, thousands of women joined the campaign for the vote in the late nineteenth century.
While most of its members were white, the WCTU was also an important reform organization for black women. It was one of the only national organizations that black and white women could both join. Black women who joined the WCTU saw alcohol as especially damaging for African-Americans, who were struggling against poverty, discrimination, and racial violence to improve their lives after Emancipation. The WCTU was an important vehicle for black women who were committed to reform work.     

The WCTU in the South

To advance its goals of temperance, prohibition, and women's suffrage, in the 1880s the WCTU began to organize chapters in the South. While they saw white Southern women as having great potential to advance these causes, there were obstacles. White Southern society held on to deeply conservative gender roles, and many women opposed suffrage because they believed that public roles for women would threaten their positions as Southern "ladies." In addition, many white Southern women balked at the idea of working alongside black women.

In response, the WCTU made accommodations. Each local or state Union could choose whether or not to endorse issues like suffrage, even if the national organization approved them. And WCTU women could organize segregated state and local chapters, though the national conventions would seat black and white delegates equally. The WCTU's approach to the South, and Southern white women's influence within the WCTU, are important themes in the conflict between Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells.

Background: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching

Ida B. Wells was an educator and journalist who began her civil rights activism in response to racist incidents she experienced in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1892, after one of her close friends was murdered by a white mob, she began to investigate the circumstances surrounding lynchings, which had become horrifyingly common in the South. The conventional wisdom at the time was that white mobs murdered black men after they had raped white women. Wells's research proved that this was not true; allegations of rape were rarely involved, but the belief that they were reduced white sympathy for black victims of lynchings.

Wells began reporting on her findings. She showed that lynchings were not misguided vigilante justice against men who had committed crimes--what she called “the old threadbare lie that negro men rape white women.” Instead, they were a way for white people to systematically use violence and fear to oppress black people.
Wells embarked on a wide-ranging anti-lynching campaign to draw attention to and stop the killings. She became frustrated, however, by the reluctance of influential white reformers to support her work. One of those reformers was Frances Willard.

The Conflict

In 1890, Frances Willard had traveled to Atlanta for a WCTU convention. While there, she gave an interview to a pro-prohibition newspaper, the New York Voice, about Southern politics. In the interview, Willard blamed black voters for the defeat of prohibition bills in the South, even though there was no evidence to suggest they were responsible. Though many black people strongly supported temperance and prohibition, both Northern and Southern whites often stereotyped black men as more prone to drunkenness and violence than white men.

Though she insisted that she had "not an atom of race prejudice," Willard's comments in the interview upheld these racial stereotypes. She stated that in the South, “the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt,” and “the grog [liquor] shop is its centre of power.” In addition, she portrayed black men as specifically threatening white women.

Ida B. Wells charged that Willard, as a reformer and the leader of an organization with many black women members, carried a special duty to speak out against the violence of lynching, rather than perpetuate the stereotype that drunken black men threatened “the safety of woman, of childhood, of the home.” She argued that when Willard advanced negative stereotypes about black people and did not disprove white Southern excuses for lynching, she effectively condoned it.

While on a speaking tour of England in 1894, Ida B. Wells re-published the interview, calling into question Willard’s moral leadership and using it to apply pressure on Willard to live up to her reputation as a Christian reformer. At first, Willard tried to defend herself, citing her family’s involvement with the abolition movement and her work supporting African-American women in the WCTU. In response, Wells pointed out that the WCTU had permitted segregated chapters in an effort to appease Southern white women. She confronted Willard directly with these compromises, calling on her and the WCTU to explicitly denounce lynching.


In the face of mounting pressure, Willard eventually took measures to address the issue, including speaking out publicly against lynching. The WCTU passed anti-lynching resolutions in 1894, 1895 and several years following. The resolutions did not, however, directly address Wells’ main contention about how white Southerners justified lynching, and Willard never retracted her original statements.

Frances Willard died in 1898 with this conflict unresolved. Ida B. Wells continued to work against racism and injustice until her death in 1931, not hesitating to criticize white women reformers when she believed they ignored or perpetuated racial discrimination. It was not until 1930 that Jessie Daniel Ames founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and the Southern white women in it challenged the claim that lynchings were “in defense of womanhood.”

The conflict between Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells is only one part of a larger story about racism in American women's movements. We hope that a close examination of this episode will shed light on that larger history, as well as provide insight into how even forward-thinking reform figures like Willard have helped to perpetuate racial discrimination.

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