African-American Women and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union: Teaching strategy


The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the largest women's organization in the United States in the late nineteenth century. The group’s primary purpose was to eliminate the use of alcohol and make the home safe for women. Led by Frances Willard for almost two decades, the WCTU appealed across religious, class, and racial lines. Leaders crafted a "Do Everything" policy, in which the Union supported a wide range of reform issues in addition to temperance, including prison reform, child welfare, women's employment, public health, and woman suffrage. The temperance movement offered black women opportunities to participate in an interracial organization, achieve leadership roles, aid their communities, and improve their race’s image through the Department of Colored Work. However, despite the growth of African-American branches in the South and the participation of African Americans in northeastern and midwestern locals, relations across the color line within the WCTU were at times fractious.


To explore the appeal of temperance work to African-American women; to understand the racial tensions within the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; to investigate the conflict between Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells over Willard's views of African Americans.

Teaching Strategies

1. Begin by reading "Mrs. Harper's Report," 21 November 1894. Why did Harper advocate spending more money for temperance work among African Americans? What did she argue "imperilled" civilization? How did she think that abolishing the liquor traffic would help? Did she believe this step would solve all social problems? Why or why not?

2. Next read the report of another National Superintendent for the Department of Colored Work, Lucy Thurman, "Work Among Colored People," 1895. Why did Thurman believe more funds were necessary for the National Superintendent? What benefits did Thurman believe would follow from organizing more colored unions in the South?

3. Consider Sarah Early's concern for racial equality in "A Word of Exhortation from Tennessee," 16 February 1888. Why did Early call for temperance among African Americans? How was her viewpoint similar to or different from that of Harper? of Thurman?

4. Consider a report from a white organizer for the WCTU in the south, Sallie Chapin, "Our Southern Letter," 26 April 1883. How did Chapin feel about her organizing work among whites and blacks? What was her attitude toward slavery? Compare and contrast Chapin's views with the views expressed by Sarah Early. What accounts for the differences?

5. In class group work -- The Willard-Wells Controversy:

Break the class into groups. Have each group read one of the following documents:

Ask each group to present a summary of their document to the entire class. Then lead a class discussion of the following questions: What was Willard's view of African Americans? Why did she favor woman suffrage? Why did she favor educational qualifications for the franchise? Why was Ida B. Wells critical of Willard's position? How did the African-American press respond to the conflict between the two women? What was Frances Harper's view of the conflict? Why do you think African-American women were drawn to the WCTU despite the prejudices within the organization?

For Further Exploration:

To explore the Minnesota branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, see "How Did the Reform Agenda of the Minnesota Woman's Christian Temperance Union Change, 1878-1917?" also on this website.

To explore further the anti-lynching activism of Ida B. Wells, see excerpts from two of her works, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases, 1892; and A Red Record, 1895, both reproduced on this website.



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