The Colored People
1894 — Presidential Address, National WCTU meeting, Cleveland OH
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.
The World’s and National W.C.T.U. take no cognizance of color either in their social customs or their legislation, and have never done so. It would have been impossible for me to be interested in a movement that made any such distinction, for my ancestors on both sides were, without exception, devotedly loyal to the colored race, and my earliest recollections are of an abolition home and an abolition college town of which my parents and all of my relatives who enjoyed the higher education were at one time or another either students or graduates. In the fifty States and Territories that make up the National W.C.T.U. we were obliged, in order to form such a society at all, to leave the details of organization under the control of the said States and Territories, and it is my understanding that in several of those at the South it was arranged by mutual and entirely amicable agreement between white and colored women that there should be two State unions whose delegates should come to the National on a plane of equality, but who should conduct their work separately within their own borders. In accepting this decision we followed the precedent we had established years before in the recognition of “States rights,” and with the exception of a few extremists we have found no criticism resulting from this action, which was taken with intelligence and deliberation, and by which we are ready to stand. It is needless to say that in all the Northern and Western States colored women join the same local unions as white women, and that they have always been among our national superintendents. The President of a colored State W.C.T.U. is a full voting member of our Executive Committee, just the same as the President of the white W.C.T.U. who comes from the same State; and I do not hesitate to claim that whenever a colored woman has shown zeal and intelligence she has been frankly and fully recognized in our councils. Mrs. Frances Harper, of Philadelphia, and Mrs. Early, of Nashville, have been officers in our National W.C.T.U. In Michigan a gifted Afro-American woman is President of a district union, and her white comrades are proud of her, as we all, and as we ought to be.
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 Women’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.
Source: 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).