Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Lynching, the "Color Line," and the WCTU Convention, 1894

The 1894 WCTU Convention

Frances Willard and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union continued to field criticism regarding Willard's comments and the union's position on lynching through the summer and fall of 1894. In November of that year, Willard and Ida B. Wells met for a second time at the WCTU's annual convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

The WCTU had passed an anti-lynching resolution at the convention the previous year (1893). Willard had told Wells back in May of 1894 that she had gained new perspective on the lynching issue. Public pressure on the organization continued to mount.

The 1894 convention could have been an opportunity for the WCTU to confirm its opposition to lynching. Willard could have apologized, or at least softened her language toward Wells.

Instead, Willard chose to use her president's address at the convention to criticize Wells--who was in the audience--by name. She also reiterated many of the comments she had made in the original 1890 interview. Moreover, the WCTU passed a resolution that did not mention lynching at all. Instead, it strongly suggested that the real problem was that black men raped white women: the same lie about lynching that Wells's work had exposed.

"The Recognition of 'State rights'": Willard's Presidential Address

In her annual President's Address, Willard responded to Wells's criticism of herself and the WCTU's position on lynching. She also defended the WCTU's policy toward its black members. She criticized Wells personally and singled out her assertion that consensual relationships between black men and white women were common in the South. [MORE]

However, Willard also called for the convention to pass an anti-lynching resolution and suggested what the text should be. Her suggestion was a resolution substantially similar to the one that the WCTU had passed the previous year, and identical to the one approved by the British Women's Temperance Association (BWTA) after Wells's speech there in May of 1894.


"Christian Protection": The 1894 Resolution

However, the actual resolution that the convention approved was quite different from the one that Willard proposed, and the one that had been passed the previous year. It did not mention the word "lynching" at all. Instead, it declared that the WCTU was opposed to "all lawless acts" in the United States. But it emphasized that the "lawlessness" of lynching happened in response to "unspeakable outrages" that were "worse than death."

This resolution is confusing because it relies on euphemisms.

Who wrote this resolution, and why did the WCTU pass it instead of the one that Willard suggested? Unfortunately, the minutes of the convention do not tell us whether there was any debate on it among the general assembly. One clue on what happened comes to us from Susan Fessenden, the president of the Massachusetts WCTU and the sponsor of the anti-lynching resolution the previous year.

In a statement quoted by Florence Balgarnie in the below pamphlet, Massachusetts WCTU president Susan Fessenden gave her account.

SCRAPBOOK PAGE, not pamphlet

[Waiting on this to be scanned but the gist is that Fessenden was in the resolutions committee, proposed an anti-lynching resolution similar to the one that had passed the previous year, there was an outcry from the Southern delegates, she left the meeting room, came back that afternoon and was told that something substantially similar had been passed, then got to the floor and realized that was not the case but it was too late to do anything.]

The 1894 WCTU Convention: The Aftermath

Ida B. Wells, who had come to Cleveland for the WCTU convention, also had several other speaking engagements scheduled in the city that week. Since Frances Willard had chosen to continue to criticize Wells in her presidential address, Wells took the opportunity to respond. At a Cleveland African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, she gave the speech described in this piece.

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