Ida B. Wells vs. Frances Willard: Getting to the truth of a failure to fight racial injustice

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Ida B. Wells

In the battle for women’s suffrage, the racial divide of the past is prologue to today’s struggles. Society does not move forward without facing difficult truths and learning hard lessons.

With more than a year to go to the 100th anniversary of American women earning the right to vote, it already is clear that one theme of the centennial celebration will be — and should be — a reckoning.


The failure of the early Women’s Movement to incorporate black voices was glaringly obvious in the clash between two Chicago-area titans of women’s history: Ida B. Wells and Frances Willard.

Under Willard’s leadership, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union increasingly became an advocate for broad social as well as political change. However, in 1894 and 1895, Willard and anti-lynching activist Wells fought a war of words in the international press that leaders of today’s movements for equality would do well to bear in mind.

Frustrated that white reformers such as Willard failed to stand with her against the terrible violence being perpetrated by lynch mobs against blacks in the South, Wells publicly called Willard to account. She convinced an English newspaper to reprint a previously published interview in which Willard had made racially charged statements that supported the racial violence of southern whites against African-Americans, and in which she called for only limited suffrage for blacks and new immigrants.

“During all the years prior to the agitation begun against Lynch Laws, in which years men, women and children were scourged, hanged, shot and burned, the W.C.T.U. had no work, either of pity or protest; its great heart, which concerns itself about humanity the world over, was, toward our cause, pulseless as a stone,” Wells wrote in “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States,” a pamphlet she published in 1895.

As a growing list of American institutions grapple with the full and complex legacies of their founders and early leaders, the question remains: How do we reckon with those who fought against one form of oppression while shoring up others?

Georgetown University, to cite one example, is reckoning with the 1838 decision by Jesuit priests who managed the university to sell roughly 300 slaves in mass to rescue Georgetown from financial ruin. Now, in an effort to make amends, the university has vowed, among other things, to create an institute for the study of slavery, rename buildings and grant preferential admission to the descendants of those slaves. The descendants are calling for reparations.

It’s a national dilemma, but, in the case of Wells and Willard, three local institutions — Northwestern University, the Frances Willard House Museum and Loyola University Chicago — are trying to confront the truth, correct the record and thus help students, the community and others find an honest path forward.

Willard was the first dean of women at Northwestern. The Frances Willard House Museum is located in Evanston at Willard’s family home, along with the Willard Memorial Library, which holds Willard’s personal papers. The museum and archive are managed by the Center for Women’s History and Leadership, whose goals are to tell the full story of the women’s temperance movement and women’s wider work for social reform from the 19th century to today.

Wells also spent a major part of her activist life in the Chicago area. The city recently named a street for her, and there are other efforts to rightfully recover and memorialize Wells’ importance.

After moving to Chicago in 1894, Wells opened a settlement house to provide assistance to African-Americans migrating from the South. In 1895, she married Ferdinand Barnett, Illinois’s first black state’s attorney and a prominent civil rights activist in his own right. He was also among the first black law grads from Northwestern University Law school.

Wells-Barnett helped elect Oscar Stanton De Priest, Chicago’s first black alderman and co-founded the National Association for Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also founded the Alpha Suffrage Club for black women.

Among Wells’ greatest contributions was her work as a journalist, documenting the lynchings of innocent black men in the South. Even after her Memphis newspaper offices were destroyed by a mob and she was chased out of town, she published “Southern Horrors” and “The Red Record,” pamphlets that proved lynching was a form of racial violence aimed at suppressing the economic and political ambitions of black southerners.

Now, Northwestern and the Frances Willard House Museum have partnered with Loyola to uncover the full truth about the confrontation between these two reformers. They are re-examining Willard’s celebrated campaigns, from the Temperance Movement to Suffrage, and attempting to shine a stronger light on Wells’ pathbreaking work as a journalist, anti-lynching crusader, civil rights champion and suffragist.

We hope our work leads the public to explore this conflict for themselves, allowing them to draw their own conclusions about Willard and her actions. And we hope people today will be better able to find the common ground that they struggled to find long ago.

We are jointly committed to presenting all sides of Willard’s life and work — the good and the bad. We want to address the conflict between these two significant American women as one part of the complex and ongoing story of racism in America and the American women’s movement.

This is what universities and museums do — constantly reinterpret the past so as to better inform society as it moves forward.

Ultimately, this is the work of all Americans today: to come to terms with our past, acknowledge where we have fallen short and face the future together in the most honest, understanding and inclusive way possible.

Leslie Harris is professor of history at Northwestern University. Lori Osborne is director of the Frances Willard House Museum.

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