Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Sectional Reunion and Reconciliation

By the 1870s many people in the United States were eager to put the Civil War behind them. Ideas for reconciliation and reunion between the North and South were circulated – and efforts were made to both forget the war and remember it in new ways. Some Northerners were ready to move on and end Reconstruction. White Southerners invented the idea of the Civil War as the South's “Lost Cause,” initially mourning Confederate soldiers who had died.

By the 1890s, the Lost Cause had become a movement to honor and memorialize the Confederacy, which included idealizing the antebellum South and slavery and promoting white supremacy. White Southern women led these efforts to rewrite the history of the war and its meaning. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups raised the money for most of the major Confederate monuments that came to dominate the Southern landscape in the early twentieth century.

Meanwhile, formerly enslaved black people began building new lives and communities -- and working to ensure that their rights would not be lost. They also turned to new ideas of “racial uplift” and were cautiously optimistic for a time that the past was behind them. However, some leaders, like Frederick Douglass, and later W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, sounded warning cries that reconciliation of the North and South would happen through a kind of “re-subjugation” of African-Americans as the Lost Cause gained power.

By the time of the conflict between Willard and Wells in the early 1890s, reconciliation was fully underway. Willard was an active participant in the work of reunion, especially as she was working to build a national organization. She saw growth opportunities among white Southern women, and she visited the South and developed friendships with white Southern WCTU leaders. Willard’s statements echoed their expressed views on the Lost Cause and white supremacy.

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