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. But because Willard had reacted so defensively to direct criticism from Wells, public pressure on the WCTU continued to mount. Under the circumstances, the WCTU could have used the 1894 convention to leave no doubt of 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.

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.

However, Willard also called for the convention to pass an anti-lynching resolution. She even suggested text that was very similar to the resolution 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"--meaning, the rapes that black men were supposedly committing against white women.

This resolution is confusing because it relies on euphemisms. The document has been annotated to make it easier to understand.

Who wrote this resolution, and why did the WCTU pass it instead of the one that Willard suggested?

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 March of 1895, Fessenden wrote the following letter to Florence Balgarnie, the ally of Ida B. Wells in the British Women's Temperance Association (BWTA). Balgarnie was attempting to piece together what had happened at the convention in 1894. She later reprinted this letter from Fessenden in an issue of Fraternity magazine.

Fessenden reported that Southern white women at the convention had objected to her anti-lynching resolution. Presumably, they drafted the one that replaced it. In its insistence that lynching happened in response to rapes, the resolution reflects the prevailing stance of Southern whites toward the lynching issue.

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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