Traditional Paper

Public Pragmatism:
Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells on Lynching

Maurice Hamington


While Jane Addams is considered perhaps the most important figure in feminist pragmatism, her work on race and diversity have received mixed reviews.  In 1901, Addams wrote "Respect for Law" condemning lynching for the New York Independent.  A few months later, the best-known anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells penned a response, "Lynching and the Excuse for It" that praised Addams analysis but pointed out a major, albeit common, flaw in the assumption that black men had actually committed crimes prior to being lynched.  This intriguing exchange in a major newspaper not only provides insight into issues of power and privilege in matters of race and gender, but also is a provocative example of public pragmatism.  This paper suggests that Wells ultimately criticizes Addams for failing to adhere to her own feminist pragmatist method of inquiry.

Maurice Hamington

Public Pragmatism:
Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells on Lynching

. . . violence is the most ineffectual method of dealing with crime, the most preposterous attempt to inculcate lessons of self control.  A community has a right to protect itself from the criminal . . . but when it attempts revenge, when it persuades itself that exhibitions of cruelty result in reform, it shows itself ignorant of all the teachings of history.
--Jane Addams, January 1901, New York Independent

Among many thousand editorial clippings I have received in the past five years, ninety-five per cent discuss the question upon the presumption that lynching are the desperate effort of the Southern people to protect their women from black monsters.
--Ida B. Wells, May 1901, New York Independent

While Jane Addams' work at Hull-House and her national efforts on peace and suffrage have received a great deal of attention, her writing on matters of race are less often considered.  When Addams' analysis of race is discussed, the reviews are often mixed.[1]  Addams, like many important theorists, was simultaneously ahead of her time and very much of her time. While this paper will not address Addams' overall philosophy of race and diversity, it will discuss a largely forgotten public exchange between Addams and the well-known anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells.  Addams wrote an anti-lynching piece for the New York Independent in January of 1901 and by May of the same year, Wells authored a response that applauded many of Addams' contentions but also pointed out a major flaw: the presumed criminal acts of black men that prompted the lynching.  I will begin with a brief background of Wells and her relationship with Addams.  [Given the audience here, I will forego background on Addams].  I will address the arguments against lynching laid out by Addams in "Respect for Law" and the retort from Wells in "Lynching and the Excuse for It."  I will suggest that this exchange reveals how Addams, despite providing many significant insights into the nature of oppression, violates her own feminist pragmatist method of inquiry resulting in the perpetuation of a racist myth.

Ida B. Wells

For those who accuse Addams of implicit racism, her relationship with Ida B. Wells stands as a significant point to the contrary.  Addams and Wells had dissimilar backgrounds, temperaments, and disagreed on some specific issues of common concern but their shared commitment to social justice created a long term positive working relationship. 

Wells' life was filled with tragedy and prejudice that served to motivate her philosophy and activism.  Wells was born a mere two years after Addams (in 1862) but their upbringing could not have been more different.  Wells' parents were slaves in rural Mississippi who eventually were emancipated and became financially independent.  When Wells was 16 years old her mother and father died of yellow fever leaving Wells to fend not only for herself but for her five surviving siblings as well.  In the face of this tragedy, Wells' religious convictions blossomed.  She also found refuge and a purpose in life through her thirst for righteousness.  In the face of injustice, Wells developed a fiery temper that sometimes got her in trouble. 

A turning point in Wells' life came in 1892 with the lynching of three of her acquaintances in Memphis.  Wells had been the owner of the only black newspaper in the city, The Memphis Free Speech.  In a series of editorials she demanded justice for the lynching.  Another local paper alleged that the three shopkeepers were lynched because they raped a white woman.  Wells refuted this lie.  A mob formed that considered lynching her but Wells was saved because she was out of town at the time.  The mob instead destroyed the building where her newspaper was housed and it ceased operation.  From then on Wells was a fiery anti-lynching activist who wrote articles and books as well as delivered speeches to whatever audience that would listen to refute the myth that the black man was a rapist. Her campaign not only served to debunk the use of the rape accusation as a weapon of racism but it challenged patriarchal notions of white women being the possession and protectorate of white men.  Wells was probably the most eloquent and determined anti-lynching activist of her day but her legacy was largely forgotten until modern feminist scholars rediscovered the depth and influence of her work.

Colleagues for Reform

Although Wells had a fiery temperament, was deeply religious, and the mother of three children, and Addams was sometimes aloof, religiously indifferent, and lived in the close company of women most of her life, they worked together on a number of projects.[2]   They were both committed to civil rights and worked to create organizations that could influence society to end racism.  In her autobiography, Wells describes some political infighting in the National Association of Colored Women that took place in 1899.  Mary Church Terrell, who helped form this organization and was then president, called for a national convention in Chicago.  Wells was not invited because, according to Wells, Terrell was afraid that she might threaten Terrell's leadership of the organization.  Addams, learning of the convention, invited the organization's entire leadership council as well as Wells to lunch at Hull-House.  Wells gratefully used the opportunity to assert herself and get more involved in the convention.[3]

In 1900, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles advocating for the segregation of Chicago public schools.  The articles were one-sided and did not include any commentary or interviews with members of the black community.  Wells was furious about the articles and went to see the editor.  After being mistaken for "a colored woman . . . begging for her church" Wells made her plea for balanced reporting but was rebuffed.[4]  Realizing that she would not get a fair hearing from the newspaper's editors, she turned to Addams who immediately organized a group of influential citizens to assail the newspaper's leadership.  Wells and Addams presented their case and through collective efforts, the articles ceased.  The Chicago Tribune did not return to an editorial position of segregation again.[5] 

Sociologist Mary Jo Deegan claims that the earliest work of the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Colored People led by Wells and Addams predated and influenced that of the NAACP.[6]  Addams and Wells worked together as part of a committee planning a 1909 centenary anniversary of Lincoln's birth in Chicago.  This celebration included an address by W.E.B. DuBois and the singing of black spirituals by a chorus of 100 African-Americans.  This was not the first collaboration of Wells and Addams as their working relationship extended to at least a decade earlier.

These anecdotes of their shared activism and relationship frames the context for the articles on lynching that appeared in 1901.  Wells and Addams had shared values and commitments and yet, because of their differing social experiences, there was an experiential gulf that would be demonstrated in their approach to lynching.

Addams: Racism as Waste; Lynching as Unchecked Violence

At times, Addams' pragmatism revealed an element of consequentialism.  When Addams argued for a particular position she tended to bring to bear a variety of arguments.  Because she was concerned with lateral progress—the advancement of all members of society not jus the elite few—inevitably the outcomes of social policies and practices were addressed.  For Addams, racism would lead to bad outcomes for society.

Addams sought a democracy of individuals engaged in one another's lives and working toward lateral progress through education and growth.  Addams' premise was that everyone could contribute to society for mutual benefit.  Anything that prevented individuals from full participation was inefficiency and therefore a waste.  Racism was one such waste.  On the 50th anniversary of the issuance of The Emancipation Proclamation, Addams questioned if the country had stagnated in its efforts to assist African Americans.  She called for a renewed energy in fighting racism and one of her principle arguments was the social cost of not doing so: "It means an enormous loss of capacity to the nation when great ranges of human life are hedged about with antagonism."[7]  Addams' pragmatism led her to seek the available tools that would accomplish her goals.  The argument of racist inefficiency was only one that she would use, but as a shrewd observer of her audience, Addams knew that many in society concerned about building a strong economy and an active citizenry would resonate with the idea of avoiding waste.

Furthermore, Addams strongly denounced unnecessary antagonism.  Her friend John Dewey even admitted that Addams' convictions against antagonism convinced him of its detriment to honest inquiry.  She believed in the power of humans to settle differences without resorting to personal attacks.  Racial stereotypes and segregation only contributed to antagonism and had the potential to lead to lawlessness.  In an article for the Crisis, edited by W.E.B. DuBois, Addams stated,  "Everywhere in America, a strong race antagonism is asserting itself, which has various modes of lawlessness an insolent expression."[8]  Here Addams is making reference to horrible acts of lynching, a barbaric waste of human life that can foment social division and further hostility.

In January 1901, Addams published an article, "Respect for Law" in the New York Independent where she directly addressed lynching.  In her typical balanced manner, she begins by admitting that she is an outsider (of the south) and therefore could not completely understand motivations in the region: "The essence of self-government [is] that it shall be local in administration, in order that special difficulties shall be met by the people who live among them, and who thus understand them better than an outsider possibly could."[9]  Here she is acknowledging the pragmatist valorization of experience and therefore the difficulty of commenting on a social issue for which she has no direct knowledge.  This admission reveals the essence of the settlement philosophy that Addams so often articulates:  the value of local proximal knowledge.  However, as Addams points out, parochial knowledge is not an absolute good and can still lead to faulty morality that condones violence and racism. 

Addams expresses alarm over "the increasing number of negroe lynchings occurring in the South."[10]  She begins her analysis by stating that history is replete with examples of atrocities committed in the name of doing the right thing when "the theory of conduct," as Addams describes it, is false.  "One of these time-honored false theories has been that criminality can be suppressed and terrorized by exhibitions of brutal punishments; that crime can be prevented by cruelty."[11]  Addams uses historical examples to indicate that cruel punishment is usually an elitist prerogative manifesting contempt for the oppressed.  As is typical of Addams, she uses a barrage of arguments to condemn lynching including that it is ineffectual, degrading, and recessive to the development of society, fostering a pattern of violence that spurs further violence.[12]  For Addams, acts of brutal cruelty such as lynching run counter to lateral progress.  Social progress manifests itself through deliberation and peaceful resolution of difference under the rule of law.

Addams concludes the article with a feminist attack on patriarchy describing violence as a tool of sexism: "The woman who is protected by violence allows herself to be protected as the woman of the save is, and she must still be regarded as the possession of man."[13] Addams is alluding to the complicity of white women in the lynching of black men but she is also hinting at the history of violence women have faced at the hands of men and its implication for power relations.  The degradation of black men will not help lift white women from their plight, but may, in fact, create a climate that will increase violence against the vulnerable—including women.  Addams is making important observations about power, difference, and discrimination that ring true even to the modern ear.  Although Addams never claims the label of "feminist" for herself, she demonstrates feminist sensibilities regarding privilege and power.

In its brevity and force "Respect for Law" is a thoroughgoing condemnation of lynching that recognizes its racist, classist, and sexist origins.  Historian Bettina Apthecker, who in 1977 first resurrects this significant public exchange between Addams and Wells, refers to Addams' work as "courageous, even radical."[14]  Furthermore, Apthecker finds that, "Addams revealed an extra ordinary class understanding of the relationship between crime and punishment."[15]  Until recently, Addams has been too often characterized as an unoriginal thinker, even by some of her biographers, but this reputation is not deserved as her writing often reveals important insight as Apthecker has identified.  Nevertheless, despite its insight, "Respect for Law" also represents a glaring failure of Addams to follow her own philosophical commitments and her faux pas begs for a reply from Wells.

Wells:  Questioning the Premise; Checking Empirical Data

Interestingly, while Wells relates the above stories in her autobiography, referring to Addams glowingly as "the greatest woman in the United States"[16] she fails to mention their public disagreement with Addams over the issue most dear to her—lynching.  In "Lynching and the Excuse for It" Ida B. Wells Barnett responds to Addams' attack on lynching in May of 1901 with her own article in the New York Independent.  Wells acknowledges the benefit of "Miss Addams' forceful pen" and does not wish to "lessen the force of the appeal."  Yet, Wells feels compelled to challenge an "unfortunate presumption" in Addams' argument.[17]  And it was an unfortunate presumption indeed.  Addams had suggested that lynching was unlawful and recessive but had failed to make the more direct claim that the accusations that prompted lynching were completely fabricated.  There was a folk belief among many whites that black men had a predilection for licentiously accosting and violating white women.   Lynching, therefore, was a response to the actions of black men, albeit an inappropriate one.  Wells refutes this folk wisdom and appeals to statistics to make her case. 

Reprinting public records from the Chicago Tribune on the allegations which prompted lynching, Wells demonstrates that only a minority of the total cases were purported to be based on assaults made upon white women.  The records indicated that hundreds of men and a few women had been lynched between 1896 and 1900, but many of the alleged crimes were only misdemeanor offences, or, in many cases, were not attributed to any crime at all.  Wells concludes that well-intentioned individuals (including Addams) are ignoring the facts about lynching: "It is strange that an intelligent, law abiding and fair minded people should persistently shut their eyes to the facts in the discussion of what the civilized world now concedes to be America's national crime."[18]    Wells is probably particularly sensitive to claims about the false basis for lynching because she was once duped herself.  In her autobiography, Wells explains that until her life was touched by lynching, she had accepted its premise:  "Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to the law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching."[19]  The lie of the lynch mob spread by the oppressor had been internalized by the oppressed.  In "Lynching and the Excuse for It" Wells does not draw the explicit conclusion that lynchings were simply violent racist acts.  She provides the data and leaves the ultimate judgment to the reader. 

Addams' arguments about lynching had been thoughtful and effective, yet, as Wells pointed out, had a major lacuna concerning the assumed morality of African American men.  This omission by Addams may be indicative of some implicit racism but it is definitely a failure of Addams to follow her own feminist pragmatist methodology.  Addams valorized experience in morality as what she describes as "sympathetic knowledge."  Her fully articulated settlement philosophy is based on the proximal knowledge of direct experience.  However, Addams did not have a large African American community (at least not up through 1901 when "Respect for Law" was written) near Hull-House upon which to draw experiences from.  This alone is not enough to preclude Addams from addressing lynching or any other social evil, but it appears she did not use the resources available to her to develop adequate sympathetic knowledge to fully comprehend the lynching question.  Addams was usually meticulous in developing her articles and speeches.  She often "tested ideas" before making them public.  Apparently, Addams did not test "Respect for Law" with her friend Wells or she might have constructed a different argument.  Another, perhaps less satisfactory explanation for Addams' oversight might be her keen sense of audience.  As a pragmatist it was more important for Addams to make headway with her Southern audience than be morally "correct" or victorious in argument.  What Wells views as an "unfortunate presumption" may have been a calculated effort to engage Southern audiences that might not have listened if they were summarily condemned.  With either explanation, Addams, while providing class and gender analysis to the national crisis of lynching, unwittingly perpetuated a racist assumption.

Public Disagreement Without Enmity

The exchange between Addams and Wells in New York Independent serves as a wonderful example of public pragmatist philosophy.  Both women, firmly committed to social improvement through collective intelligent action, used experience to build a rational argument.  They brought their arguments to the public square with clarity and humility.  Wells invoked no ad hominem antagonism in offering a strong and necessary corrective to Addams.  The two women continued to collaborate on behalf of civil justice despite their public disagreement.  1901 was still fairly early in Addams career and she would go on to embrace a pragmatist sense of fallibility and the growth that could come from thoroughly considered mistakes.  Addams would become more sensitive and active on behalf of race, eventually joining Wells to help found the NAACP.  Wells' fiery personality would cause the end of relationships with many of the black leaders of her day, but she would go to her grave with admiration and respect for Addams.  From the perspective of the new millennia, where the media revels in public displays of antagonism, the exchange between Addams and Wells, as well as their subsequent collaborations, are a refreshing example of how the exchange of ideas on matters of social importance can be conducted.

[1] See, for example, Shannon Sullivan, Transactions of the C.S. Peirce Society, Winter 2003, 39(1): 43-60; Rivka Shpak Lissak, Pluralism & Progressives: Hull House and the new immigrants, 1890-1919.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; Philpott, Thomas Lee, The Slum and the Ghetto: Immigrants, Blacks, and Reformers in Chicago, 1880-1930, Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1991.

[2] Mary Jo Deegan, Race, Hull-House, and the University of Chicago: A New Conscience Against Ancients Evils. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 72.

[3] Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, Ed., Alfreda M. Duster, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 257-260.

[4] Ibid., 275.

[5] Ibid., 274-278.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Jane Addams, "Has the Emancipation Act Been Nullified by National Indifference," Survey XXIX, no. 13 (February 1, 1913): 566.

[8] Jane Addams, "Social Control," Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, I (January, 1911): 22.

[9] Jane Addams, "Respect for Law" New York Independent LIII (January 3, 1901) in Bettina Apthecker, Lynching and Rape: An Exchange of View, (New York: The American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1977), 23.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 25-27.

[13] Ibid., 27

[14] Bettina Apthecker, Lynching and Rape: An Exchange of View, (New York: The American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1977), 8

[15] Ibid., 10.

[16] Wells, Crusade for Justice, 259.

[17] Ida B. Wells, "Lynching and the Excuse for It," New York Independent LIII (May 16, 1901) in Bettina Apthecker, Lynching and Rape: An Exchange of View, (New York: The American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1977), 29.

[18] Ibid., 29-30.

[19] Wells, Crusade for Justice, 64.