Willard & Wells.
Although Willard worked on many issues to transform the social fabric of her time, her politics around race were complicated. Her parents were abolitionists and provided safe-haven on the underground railroad while the family lived in Oberlin, OH and she ensured that the meetings of the national and international WCTU were integrated and worked closely with women of various races both nationally and internationally. But individual state local chapters of the WCTU were segregated. This is likely because meeting were often held in churches and other segregated gathering places and were thus segregated by the nature of where and why and how people gathered in that day. When Willard was at the height of her work around suffrage, she placed a certain emphasis on encouraging white WCTU chapters in the South to mobilize for the vote as white women of the WCTU from the South during that time were less inclined to organize for suffrage, thereby not placing an equal emphasis and value on the black southern chapters of the WCTU. There is also a chronicled historic tension between the journalist, educator and early civil rights advocate, Ida B Wells and Frances E Willard. Wells traveled the country and parts of Europe speaking out against the violence and prejudice against black people rampant in the US in the 1890s. She documented how lynching was used in the South as a way to control or punish black people rather than being based on criminal acts by black people, and lead the efforts in the Anti-Lynching Movement. Willard did not immediately speak out in support of the Anti-Lynching Movement and Wells called her out for failing to use her political sway as a voice of resistance in this movement, a case of silence perpetuating violence. Wells also pointed to an interview of Willard during her tour of the American South in which she had blamed black behavior for the defeat of temperance legislation. "The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt," she had said, and "the grog shop is its center of power.... The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities." Wells felt strongly that Willard's attitude inflamed the crimes against African Americans in the US and that as a woman with such great power she had a responsibility to speak out against the unfounded abuse of black americans.
Willard did later sign on in support of the Anti-Lynching Movement and in her 1894 Presidential Address to the WCTU stated:
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.
The interactions between Wells and Willard are a noteworthy and teachable moment. It seems that Willard, who harbored judgments about black men under the influence of alcohol, as she harbored judgements about all men under the influence of alcohol, was able to truly listen to and hear Wells' message about the barbarity of white lynch mob behavior. Through this controversy, she became an upstander, an individual who sees injustice and acts, no longer a bystander. The image I created in Willard's office is an effort to encompass this journey of transformation and active participation in a movement that was not one of Willard's initial causes. In this moment I imagine a conversation between Willard and Wells, although they are not known to have met in private in real life, only in limited public engagements. Wells is explaining her perspective to Willard, describing her observations of lynching in the American South, the grave impact on the moral and social fabric of our nation. Willard has listened deeply and felt the necessity of Wells anti-lynching movement. She is reflecting on her past comments and doing penance for her prior public words. By writing Black Lives Matter over and over and over again she is both absorbing the impact of her own previous slanderous actions and aligning herself with the movement. She is in a new found position of humility and advocacy for racial parity and justice. The scroll that Willard is composing is inspired by the Polyglot petitions that the WCTU is known for utilizing to gather signatures on a specific issue and then present before congress to demonstrate the number of supporters for a specific political issue they hope to change. In this image, Wells is both in a position of power, standing over Willard, but also one of offering advice and information. It is imagined that they are able to peel back the weight and emotion of the history of their interaction and allow themselves to be vulnerable and honest to work together toward change. By utilizing Black Lives Matter, a photo from the frontlines of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington and the Wells-Willard exchange we see the bridge of history of how deeply racism is institutionalized in the fabric of our nation and how much work we still have to do.