“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.”
The temperance leader 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 had gained fame as a forward-thinking social reformer. As president of the influential Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she championed women’s suffrage, girls’ schooling, and prison reform as well as alcohol prohibition.
Black journalist and teacher Ida B. Wells took notice of Willard’s interview in the fall of 1890. After a white mob murdered one of her close friends in Memphis in 1892, Wells launched an ambitious campaign against lynching in the South. She publicly criticized Willard and other white moral reformers who failed to take a stand against the violence.
In 1894, Wells brought a copy of Willard’s original interview with her on a speaking tour in England and had it republished by a London newspaper. She called Willard an “apologist” for lynching. She also accused Willard of pandering to racism in order to attract white Southern women to the WCTU—at the expense of the organization’s black members.
Wells’s arrow hit its mark. Willard, who was also in England for a temperance convention, reacted defensively. She and her supporters saw the criticism as an attack on her character. Willard had “not an atom of race prejudice,” she insisted. Her parents had been devoted abolitionists. How could anyone call her a racist?
The two activists and their allies traded barbs for months, and the conflict attracted coverage in both British and American newspapers. Under Willard’s leadership, the WCTU eventually passed resolutions opposing lynching. But Willard’s behavior complicates her legacy. Until now, though, this story has never before been told at the museum dedicated to her life.
This documentary website, Truth-Telling: Frances Willard, Ida B. Wells, and Lynching, seeks to repair the damage done by that silence. Willard’s failure of leadership on this issue matters to her story. Of course, she was not the only white public figure to make racist statements in the 1890s. Nor was she the only reformer to do so—many of the suffrage movement’s most prominent leaders also expressed racist beliefs.
But Willard’s reputation and achievements as a reformer mean that this story warrants attention now, just as it did in the 1890s. In trying to build a truly national organization only two decades after the Civil War, Willard compromised with white women’s racism. How and why that happened can help us understand the larger story of racism in American women’s movements—and American history in general.