Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Frances Willard and the "Race Problem"

"The Race Problem: Miss Willard on the Political Puzzle of the South"

The document featured on this page contains the statements that first ignited the conflict between Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells. In 1890, Willard traveled to Atlanta for the annual convention of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The union had chosen to hold its meeting there as part of its strategy to recruit more Southern white women and become a nationally powerful force.

Not long after the convention in Atlanta, Willard gave the interview featured below. In it, she expressed support for educational restrictions on voting, and she suggested that black voters were responsible for the defeat of prohibition bills in the South. She also repeated the belief, told to her by white Southerners, that black men often raped white women in the South, and that white mobs lynched them in retaliation. The language she used--including comparing black people in the South to a swarm of "locusts"--draws on racial stereotypes of black men as "savage" and threatening.

The interview was published in the New York Voice, a weekly pro-prohibition newspaper. At the time, Ida B. Wells was working as a journalist in Memphis, Tennessee. Wells read Willard's words and did not forget them. She wrote later that the interview was widely criticized in the African-American press at the time. But it did not create a stir in mainstream white newspapers until four years later, when Wells had the interview republished in a British journal. By then, Wells was in the midst of the anti-lynching campaign that would make her famous. Her goal was to bring public attention to Willard's derogatory statements about black men, and to pressure Willard into supporting her anti-lynching work.

The WCTU was one of the largest women's organizations of the late nineteenth century US, and it had an expanding international branch as well. Willard, who in 1890 had been WCTU president for more than 10 years, was internationally known and respected as a moral leader. As such, she had a large platform that could be used to advance the anti-lynching cause.

The interview is long, but we invite you to take the time to read it in full. It is central to understanding the conflict between Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells.

To read the annotations to the text, hover your mouse over the rectangular borders that appear on the images below.

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