Willard, the WCTU and Race


But even Tourgee could not smooth over the frictions that were developing within the various movements for social reform, particularly with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The force behind this movement was Frances E. Willard, whose success in organizing a national base of support opposed to the sale and consumption of liquor largely depended upon mobilizing women across the country, including white women in the South. Willard was accused of downplaying the role of African American women in the WCTU in order to gain support from Southern white women. Moreover, she appeared to be deliberately encouraging actions in the group that would prevent it from taking a formal stand against lynching in the WCTU platform during the November 1894 WCTU Convention in Cleveland. This infuriated Wells who printed a scathing indictment of Willard and the WCTU leadership in her pamphlet, “A Red Record”, published in 1895. Their differences in approach to reform as well as their personal dislike of each other created an irreparable divide between the two, ultimately diminishing the ability of African Americans to gain white support or to consolidate African American opinion. Wells wrote to Tourgee about the matter in November 1894, just after Willard had made her national address to the WCTU:

Dear Sir:-

I have today read your strong words in defence of me and the cause. As always, I feel grateful to you for the only unequivocal expressions in behalf of justice which you alone seemed moved to make. I feel especially grateful at the word this time in reply to Miss Willard’s specious arguments and statements. Miss W. has never forgiven me for telling what she said in condemnation of lynching and christian tho’ she be, she could not resist the opportunity to strike at me thro her association. She succeeded in doing what she intended. For the entire organization believes “I misrepresented the WCTU” while in England and no opportunity was given me to explain. Your words are most opportune in setting the matter clearly before the public. The southern women delegates had a caucus at Cleveland and succeeded in preventing the passage of any resolution by the national body against lynching. Again thanking you for these and all other words in behalf of justice, I am.

Yours truly
Ida B. Wells
395 Gold St. Brooklyn

The next month, Tourgee received a letter from Willard, apparently her response to Tourgee’s public opinion, possibly one expressed publicly, on the conflict between the two women:

Albion Tourgee Esq.
Honored and dear Brother,

...In what I say in my annual address, I think you have misapprehended my words. The expression “by making the imputation that white women are instigators of heinous crimes between white and colored races” I meant that Miss Wells stated in her public address in England that white women in this country invited colored men to illicit intimacies and then turned about and laid the whole blame on them, and certainly gave the impression that many a lynching occurred as a result of such conduct on the part of a white woman, who herself went scot free while the partner of her sin suffered the direst penalties of ‘Judge Lynch’. It seems to me this was most ill-advised on her part. She is a bright woman and I have nothing against her except that my study of her character and work leads me to feel she has not the balance and steadiness that are requisite in a successful reformer. I do not mention this as her fault but her misfortune…

Image & Captions:
Item Image:
Item Caption:

Letter, Ida B. Wells to Albion Winegar Tourgée, 1894-11-27. Courtesy of Chautauqua County Historical Society.

View item information
Item Image:
Item Caption:

Letter, Frances Willard to Albion Winegar Tourgée, 1894-12-21. Courtesy of Chautauqua County Historical Society.

View item information