Evanston’s most famous social reformer and suffragist, Frances Willard, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells took center stage Saturday morning when two prominent historians convened virtually to discuss the racially charged conflict that set the women at odds during the late 19th century.

During an Oct. 23 event hosted by the Nashville (Tennessee) Public Library, Lori Osborne, director of the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, and Michelle Duster, biographer and great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, discussed Willard’s failure to take the lead in publicly denouncing lynching when Wells called upon her to do so.

Willard and Wells
Frances Willard (left) and Ida B. Wells. (Courtesy of the Frances Willard House Museum and WCTU Archives)

That decision, along with racist remarks Willard delivered during an earlier newspaper interview, ultimately resulted in public condemnation of the leader and the organization she headed, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). While Willard is remembered for her tireless efforts to empower women and give voice to the disenfranchised, the conflict with Wells has had a lasting impact on her legacy.

Duster explained that her great-grandmother first experienced the devastating impact of lynching firsthand when three of her friends were murdered in Memphis in 1892. The false narrative surrounding the attack painted the three black men as threatening to white women, a theme commonly used to justify such acts at the time. After exposing the lie, Wells launched her crusade against lynching and turned to Willard for help.

“She knew that Frances Willard had a platform bigger than her own,” Duster said. “In today’s world, she would be considered an influencer, someone who has 10 million followers on Twitter.”

But Willard waffled, initially ignoring the public pressure Wells applied through the social media of the day – newspapers articles, pamphlets and letters. “Wells rightfully could have expected to receive support from Willard,” said Osborne. “The WCTU was one of the earliest places where Black women and white women [were] working on something together.”

Willard’s lack of support for Wells’ campaign is especially difficult to comprehend, noted Osborne, given how much the two women had in common. Although they were a generation apart, both women had served as activists, journalists and schoolteachers. Both were Methodists. “To me, it’s surprising,” Osborne said, “and I think [it was] surprising to Wells.”

Eventually the WCTU passed resolutions condemning lynching in 1894 and 1895 and in the years that followed, but they lacked the scope and teeth that Wells desired. Willard, who never retracted her racist remarks or publicly apologized to Wells, died in 1898 with the issue unresolved.

Osborne believes Willard failed in her social responsibilities because she wanted to avoid alienating the southern white women who formed a powerful base within WCTU. “She’s trying to grow,” Osborne explained of Willard at the time. “She wants to be even bigger. She wants to solidify the network in the South. When you’re looking to grow you make compromises.”

Duster added that the practice of courting southern white women at the expense of Black women was not a new dynamic during the period and it added to her great-grandmother’s disappointment. The prevailing thought, she said, was that “if we ally with Black women and take on some of the issues that are important to [them], then other white women will be offended and so we have to choose. Time and time again that decision was made and Black women were the ones that were left out.”

While Willard sacrificed her integrity to maintain her sphere of influence, Wells continued to follow her conscience in her quest for social justice. “I look at my great-grandmother’s work,” Duster said, “and I see that she was willing to be unpopular. She was willing to speak out and have a lot of people hate her because she really did truly believe in what she stood for.”

The Frances Willard House Museum is at 1730 Chicago Ave. (Courtesy of the Frances Willard House Museum and WCTU Archives)

Osborne was part of a team of researchers who in 2019 launched the award-winning digital exhibit “Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells,” now on permanent display at the Nashville Public Library and available online through the Evanston museum website. She confirmed that during their research they encountered many facts about Willard that were difficult to face. “It took us a while to really grapple with it,” Osborne said. “These are hard things.”

Osborne chose to persist because the lessons gleaned go far beyond Willard and the WCTU. “We’re not just learning about this story. We’re learning about our country,” she said. “We’re learning about where we came from, how we got here. That’s why we keep pressing forward.”

The public can discover more about the extraordinary life and work of Frances Willard by visiting the museum located at 1730 Chicago Ave. in Evanston. Built in 1865, the classic Victorian structure was the Willard family home and later served as the WCTU headquarters. Packed with period furnishings, artwork and textiles, the sprawling cottage offers a charming portal into the past. Tours are available by reservation and cost $15 per person. Admission is free for students.

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.