Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Truth-Telling: A Welcome

Jonathan Holloway

Provost and Professor of History and African American Studies
Northwestern University

Professor Holloway delivered these remarks at the launch event for this exhibit, Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells, on March 14, 2019 at Northwestern University.

“When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the courthouse to promptly punish crimes; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue—if it means lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beast—then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.”

Good afternoon. My name is Jonathan Holloway and I am the provost of Northwestern University. When I am not conducting my provostial duties—which isn’t often, I admit—I am also professor of History and African American Studies. Today, then, is one of those rare occasions when I get to take on two personas at once: administrator and educator.

I readily admit that starting a welcome statement with a quote about lynching seems…curious (to use a favorite word of administrators when we are trying to be politic). It is, in fact, quite curious, but so is history, broadly speaking. This is particularly true when we think about the history of this country, a nation that is based on a boastful love of freedom and liberty that also happens to be defined by a history of denying these same options to the very people who contributed mightily to the literal building of the country and to the harvesting of its fields. Just as I stand before you embodying two positions, the provost and the professor, one can say that if we are to be honest with our own history, this country has two personas as well.

Keeping in mind this notion of duality, or as the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois would say in 1903, this notion of double-consciousness, let me return to the beginning of my comments for further reflection. In returning there I am returning to Rebecca Latimer Felton, the person who offered that cold-hearted rationalization of how justice should be secured.

Felton, a native of Georgia, was born in 1835 to a well-off family. She married in her late teens and, with her husband, oversaw a thriving plantation. She was a slave owner and more or less saw this as her birth-right. Barely a decade into her life as the mistress of a plantation, however, Felton’s world was turned upside down when the South lost the Civil War and slavery was ended. In short order, the family wealth vanished, and she and her husband turned to the life of simple farming until they could secure enough money to open their own school.

Once restored to a certain level of comfort, Felton made it her mission to proselytize about the value of hard work, the need for girls to receive a formal education, and the importance of prison reform. She became one of the country’s leading advocates for women’s rights, even calling for equal pay for equal work. She also was an anti-rape activist who called upon men to protect women from the rise of uncivilized behavior that was a hallmark of an industrializing and increasingly soulless society. All along, this seemingly progressive educator and civic leader was unrepentant in her commitment to white supremacy and was willing to advocate lynching if that’s what it would take to restore or maintain a proper social order.

She offered her infamous declaration, “if it means lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beast—then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary,” in 1897. At that point, she had been a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for thirteen years.

I mention this not in an effort to shame the WCTU. After all, many if not most of us have come here this evening quite aware that WCTU leaders like Frances Willard somehow managed to hold views that were simultaneously avant-garde and retrograde, even if the latter types of ideas like anti-black racism were fairly commonplace in her time. Instead of shaming, I want to salute the Frances Willard House Museum leadership for its demonstrated willingness to embrace the complexity that is at the heart of any history.

Like the museum leaders, I take seriously the responsibility we all have to understand how Willard’s views were a manifestation of a complex environment in which privilege, wealth, race, second-class citizenship, sexual violence, propriety, economic warfare, dignity, and inequity collided with shocking frequency.

Ida B. Wells, of course, knew in deeply personal ways what too frequently happened when all of these forces collided: declarations of rape when no sexual violence was even involved, exhortations that justice must be secured when the actual victim was the person being hunted by vigilantes, self-righteous assertions of moral purity coming from the same individual who somehow felt that using a noose could be sanctified.

These dualities, these personas, these embodiments of double-consciousness are what has made this country what it is, for better and for worse. If we are to be the honest stewards of the past and if we are ever to arrive at a place where our country comes close to living up to its ideals it is going to take moments like this, when people come together to talk, to listen, to learn, and to grow. It is difficult work, to be sure, and there will be many more strange and bitter crops to pluck along the way, but this is work we must do if we are to honor those whose efforts brought us this far.

Great universities and great museums are not afraid of this work because we know that history asks this of us, that the present needs this from us, and that the future already stands in judgement of us. With this in mind, allow me to welcome to this moment, when Northwestern, Loyola, and the Willard Museum have come together to do that work, to truth-tell about the past and to do so in an era where even facts have been rendered suspect.

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