The WCTU and the Lynching Controversy

by Jennifer Erbach



Students will analyze the writings of Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells and outline their positions and attitudes towards segregation and lynching.

Students will utilize Wells' and Willard's arguments to explore lynching, racial attitudes in the North and South towards the end of the 19th century, and the role of activist organizations in influencing politics and public opinion.

Prior to the Lesson:

Divide the class into three groups. Give the students homework packets that include the following (click on the group to go to the homework packets):

Group 1: "The Bitter Cry of Black America"

"The Race Problem"

Group 2: "The Colored People"

"Miss Willard's Attitude"

Group 3: "Mr. Moody and Miss Willard"

"The Lynching Question"

The packets also include an introduction and set of guided reading questions for each group. Students should read the assigned documents for homework and answer the guided reading questions for their documents.


Think about some activist groups that exist in the country today. Enlist the students to list of a few of these on the board. What role do these groups play in altering the social and political ideologies of our country? How much influence do you think these groups have with the government and with society in general?

Part I

Spend a few minutes outlining the practice of lynching in the United States in the late 19th century, including the social and political climate in which it arose. ( Note: Ida B. Wells' book A Red Record contains a number of descriptions of incidents in which persons were lynched, as well as lynching statistics for 1892, 1893, and 1894 that were compiled by the Chicago Tribune.)

Part II

Divide the class into groups of 3, one member from each of the 3 homework groups. Each student should provide the others with a summary of what was discussed in the documents they read for homework. The groups should then construct an overall summary of Willard's and Wells's arguments.

As a class, consider the following:

  • What do these documents reveal about racial attitudes in both the north and south?
  • Why do you think that the attitudes of Frances Willard and the WCTU were of such concern to Ida B. Wells?
  • How did Frances Willard react to the criticisms against herself and the WTCU? (Think long term, not just immediate)
  • Do you think that Wells was overzealous in her attacks on the WCTU (as Willard claimed)? Why or why not?
  • What if the WCTU had taken a strong stance against lynching? Speculate as to what might have been the result(s).
  • Can you think of a recent situation in which an activist or reform group has fallen under criticism for its actions? Why do you think that social/political activist groups can fall under such criticism? Would you say that social and political activist groups have a strong impact on public opinion? On political positions? Why or why not?

Part III

With the remaining class time and/or for homework, have the students write 1-3 paragraphs reacting to the readings and discussion.

State Standards Addressed:

16.A.5a Analyze historical and contemporary developments using methods of historical inquiry (pose questions, collect and analyze data, make and support inferences with evidence, report findings). 16.B.5a (US) Describe how modern political positions are affected by differences in ideologies and viewpoints that have developed over time (e.g., political parties' positions on government intervention in the economy). 16.D.5 (US) Analyze the relationship between an issue in United States social history and the related aspects of political, economic and environmental history.

Notes for the Instructor:

Time required for this lesson should be about one 40-50 minute class period, plus outside readings.

Additional documents written by Frances Willard, as well as the complete text of "A Red Record" by Ida B. Wells are available on Illinois During the Gilded Age.

A good source of additional documents related to the WCTU and the lynching controversy are available at

Download the lesson plans below:


Group 1

Group 2

Group 3