The WCTU and the Lynching Controversy

Group 2 Homework Packet

by Jennifer Erbach


Introduction

Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist and part-owner of the newspaper Free Speech. In 1892, after writing editorials condemning lynching, she was forced to flee the South by a mob who threatened her life. Wells traveled around Great Britain and the northern U.S. lecturing on the horrors of lynching and trying to rouse public sympathy against it. She published A Red Record in 1895, a compilation of lynching statistics.

Frances Willard was a northern school teacher who became actively involved with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, an organization which worked to promote temperance, purity, moral reform, and encouraged education and women's suffrage. In 1879, she was elected president of the National WCTU and in 1891 became the president of the World WCTU. Willard traveled extensively, delivered lectures, and published pamphlets pertaining to issues of social and moral reform.

In the early 1890s conflict arose between Ida B. Wells and the WCTU, particularly with Frances Willard. Wells accused the WCTU of ignoring the atrocities being committed against blacks by lynch mobs. Wells was also outraged by some of the statements made by Willard concerning racial tensions in the south, statements which appeared to excuse, if not condone, lynching. Willard in turn, accused Wells of being "overzealous" in her attacks, and of painting a distorted picture of U.S. racial tensions during her lectures in Great Britain. The conflict between the two women would last until Willard's death in 1898.

Directions:

Read through the documents and answer the guided reading questions included in this packet. Write down any questions that you have, and come to class prepared to discuss the readings.

Reading #1: The Colored People

This is an excerpt from Frances Willard's Presidential Address, given at the national meeting of the WCTU in 1894.

Much misapprehension has arisen in the last year concerning the attitude of our unions toward the colored people, and an official explanation is in order.

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And now about the lynching controversy. Some years ago on my return from the South I was interviewed by a representative of the New York Voice, and stated that as one result of my observations and inquiries I believed that it would be better if not only in the South but throughout the nation we had an educational rather than a color or sex limit put upon the ballot. To this opinion, without intending the slightest discrimination against race, I still adhere. I also said that in the South the colored vote was often marshalled against the temperance people by base political leaders for their own purposes, and still hold to that statement. Furthermore, I said that the nameless outrages perpetrated upon white women and little girls were a cause of constant anxiety, and this I still believe to be true; but I wish I had said then, as I do now, that the immoralities of white men in their relations with colored women are the source of intolerable race prejudice and hatred, and that there is not a more withering curse upon the manhood of any nation than that which the eternal laws of nature visited upon those men and those homes in which the helpless bondwoman was made the victim of her master's base desire. But the bleaching of the black race which was the ever-present bar sinister of the olden time in the slaveholding States has largely ceased, and I make this statement on the testimony of well-informed Northerners who have long lived in the South, and who are, like myself, of New England ancestry and training, with all that those words imply. An average colored man when sober is loyal to the purity of white women; but when under the influence of intoxicating liquors the tendency in all men is toward a loss of self-control, and the ignorant and vicious, whether white or black, are most dangerous characters.

It is inconceivable that the W.C.T.U. will ever condone lynching, no matter what the provocation, and no matter whether its barbarous spectacle is to be seen in the North or South, in home or foreign countries. Any people that defends itself by shooting, burning, or otherwise torturing and killing any human being, for no matter what offence, works a greater retribution upon itself by the blunting of moral perception and fine feeling than it can possibly work upon any poor debased wretch or monster that it thus torments into another world. Concerning the stirring up of the lynching question in Great Britain, I have thought that its reaction might have a wholesome tendency, and for this reason urge the following resolution, which was offered by Lady Henry Somerset at the last annual meeting of the British Woman's Temperance Association, and unanimously adopted, and which has been adopted by many of our State unions:

Resolved, That we are opposed to lynching as a method of punishment, no matter what the crime, and irrespective of the race by which the crime is committed, believing that every human being is entitled to be tried by a jury of his peers.

At the same time I strongly feel that the treatment of the Matabele and other dark-faced tribes in South Africa has been as unworthy of England as any of our dealings with the same race have ever been in the United States; and while receiving in a spirit of reciprocity the criticism of the British press and public on the lynchings in this county, it seems to me we might as well appoint a committee on the subject of British outrages in South Africa, and present to the British minister at Washington a similar petition to that sent to MINSTER BAYARD, London, through the influence of Miss IDA B. WELLS, a bright young colored woman, whose zeal for her race, has as it seems to me, clouded her perception as to who were her friends and well-wishers in all high-minded and legitimate efforts to banish the abomination of lynching and torture from the land of the free and the home of the brave. It is my firm belief that in the statements made by MISS WELLS concerning white women having taken the initiative in nameless acts between the races, she had put an imputation upon half the white race in this country that is unjust, and save in the rarest exceptional instances, wholly without foundation. This is the unanimous opinion of the most disinterested and observant leaders of opinion whom I have consulted on the subject, and I do not fear to say that the laudable efforts she is making are greatly handicapped by statements of this kind, nor to urge her as a friend and well-wisher to banish from her vocabulary all such allusions as a source of weakness to the cause she has at heart.

I hope this whole subject will be carefully considered and such action taken by this Convention as shall give no uncertain sound concerning our warm interest and fellowship with the colored people in all their aspirations toward Christian conduct, character, and education. There are 25,000 schools in the Southern States for the colored people, and at least two million have learned to read and write. It is also estimated that real and personal property to the amount of two hundred and fifty million dollars is owned by them in the United States. I hope that strenuous efforts will be made to secure the organization of W.C.T. Unions in the colored churches. As the outcome of much thought and observation, it seems to me that we cannot as yet hope for that larger development of interest and work that results from undenominational action; we must have the pastor of each church favorable to the formation of a group of White Ribbon women; we must go to him and ask for this; we must adapt ourselves to the conditions more carefully than we have done; we must put colored women in the field, and I feel sure they will join with us heartily when they understand our purpose and intention.

From Frances E. Willard, "The Colored People," National WCTU Annual Meeting Minutes of 1894 (Chicago: Woman's Temperance Publication Association, 1894), pp. 129-31 (Temperance and Prohibition Papers microfilm (1977), section I, reel 4).

Reading #2: Miss Willard's Attitude

This excerpt is taken from Ida B. Wells' book, "A Red Record. Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892-1893-1894. Respectfully Submitted to the Nineteenth Century Civilization in 'the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'"

* * *

Unable to deny the truth of these assertions, the charge has been made that I have attacked Miss Willard and misrepresented the W. C. T. U. If to state facts is misrepresentation, then I plead guilty to the charge.

But I said then and repeat now, that in all the ten terrible years of shooting, hanging and burning of men, women and children in America, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union never suggested one plan or made one move to prevent those awful crimes. If this statement is untrue the records of that organization would disprove it before the ink is dry. It is clearly an issue of fact and in all fairness this charge of misrepresentation should either be substantiated or withdrawn.

It is not necessary, however, to make any representation concerning the W. C. T. U. and the lynching question. The record of that organization speaks for itself. During all the years prior to the agitation begun against Lynch Law, in which years men, women and children were scourged, hanged, shot and burned, the W. C. T. U. had no word, either of pity or protest; its great heart, which concerns itself about humanity the world over, was, toward our cause, pulseless as a stone. Let those who deny this speak by the record. Not until after the first British campaign, in 1893, was even a resolution passed by the body which is the self constituted guardian for "God, home and native land."

Nor need we go back to other years. The annual session of that organization held in Cleveland in November, 1894, made a record which confirms and emphasizes the silence charged against it. At that session, 

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earnest efforts were made to secure the adoption of a resolution of protest against lynching. At that very time two men were being tried for the murder of six colored men who were arrested on charge of barn burning, chained together, and on pretense of being taken to jail, were driven into the woods where they were ambushed and all six shot to death. The six widows of the butchered men had just finished the most pathetic recital ever heard in any court room, and the mute appeal of twenty-seven orphans for Justice touched the stoutest hearts. Only two weeks prior to the session, Gov. Jones of Alabama in his last message to the retiring state legislature, cited the fact that in the two years just past, nine colored men had been taken from the legal authorities by lynching mobs and butchered in cold blood — and not one of these victims was even charged with an assault upon womanhood.

It was thought that this great organization, in face of these facts, would not hesitate to place itself on record in a resolution of protest against this awful brutality towards colored people. Miss Willard gave assurance that such a resolution would be adopted, and that assurance was relied on. The record of the session shows in what good faith that assurance was kept. After recommending an expression against Lynch Law, the President attacked the anti-lynching movement, deliberately misrepresenting my position, and in her annual address, charging me with a statement I never made.

Further than that, when the committee on resolutions reported their work, not a word was said against lynching. In the interest of the cause I smothered the resentment I felt because of the unwarranted and unjust attack of the President, and labored with members to secure an expression of some kind, tending to abate the awful slaughter of my race. A resolution against lynching was introduced by Mrs. Fessenden and read, and then that great Christian body, which in its resolutions had expressed itself in opposition to the 

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social amusement of card playing, athletic sports and promiscuous dancing; had protested against the licensing of saloons, inveighed against tobacco, pledged its allegiance to the Prohibition party, and thanked the Populist party in Kansas, the Republican party in California and the Democratic party in the South, wholly ignored the seven millions of colored people of this country whose plea was for a word of sympathy and support for the movement in their behalf. The resoultion was not adopted, and the convention adjourned.

From Wells-Barnett, Ida B. [1895], A Red Record. Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Respectfully Submitted to the Nineteenth Century Civilization in 'the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave' (Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry) Permission: University of Chicago.

Guided Reading Questions

Answer the following in 1-3 complete sentences.

1. How does Frances Willard clarify her statement that "the nameless outrages perpetrated upon white women and little girls [by black men] were the source of constant anxiety?" What does she cite as the source of "prejudice and hatred" between the races? 

 

2. What does Willard say about the views of the WCTU regarding lynching? 

 

3. What accusation(s) does Willard make against Great Britain? 

 

4. What accusation(s) does Willard make against Ida B. Wells? 

 

5. What are Willard's hopes for the relationship between the WCTU and African Americans living in the south? 

 

6. What accusation(s) does Ida B. Wells bring against the WCTU? What does she offer as proof? 

 

7. Why did Wells and others believe that the WCTU would pass a resolution against lynching at their annual convention in 1894? 

 

8. What ultimately happened at the convention? What accusation(s) does Wells make against Frances Willard?