Harriet Kells helped establish the first chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Mississippi and served as editor of the organization’s Mississippi White Ribbon. Kells played a primary role in inviting the nation’s leading Prohibition speaker, Frances E. Willard, to speak in Jackson, a visit that inspired the first serious attempts to form Prohibition organizations in the state.
Born in Natchez, Harriet Barfield Coulson spent parts of her childhood in Jefferson County and later in Jackson. After marrying William H. Kells in 1864, Harriet taught school in East Tennessee, served as a principal in Pass Christian, and worked as a health officer at the Industrial Institute and College (now Mississippi University for Women) in Columbus and taught school in Jackson. Kells became the White Ribbon’s first editor in 1889 and remained the major figure in its publication until her death.
Like many Prohibitionists, Kells condemned alcohol for destroying home lives. She spoke idealistically of the ways women could uplift male society, condemned “drunken, ignorant black men,” and believed that Prohibition would solve problems of crime and racial conflict. Like many WCTU leaders, Kells also supported the goal of suffrage for women. Fellow temperance and women’s rights advocate Belle Kearney called Kells “one of the brainiest, most cultured and advanced women in the South.”
In the 1890s, Kells’s editorial talent allowed her to work with Willard as the editor of Chicago’s Union Signal, the nation’s leading WCTU journal. The Mississippi White Ribbon suspended publication during her absence. She returned to Mississippi and to her job as editor in 1904, living first in Fayette and then Jackson.
Kells used her editorial position to dramatize differences between her opinions and those of her opponents and critics. The Jackson Daily News once criticized Kells for her “sharp tongue.” As a leader of the wing of the Mississippi Prohibition movement that demanded a state law, she criticized supporters of local-option laws, primarily Methodist minister Charles B. Galloway, for compromising with evil. In 1904 she criticized ministers more broadly for their lack of interest in the politics of Prohibition: “The supine negligence and criminal silence of the church is responsible mainly for present liquor-soaked, law-defying conditions in Mississippi.”
Kells participated in the successful campaign that resulted in Mississippi’s passage of a 1907 law banning the sale of alcohol and then used the power of the WCTU to demand enforcement of statewide Prohibition. She believed that women should have the vote and that until they did, they should work to convince men to support their causes: “Every woman can talk [Prohibition] into every man’s consciousness.”
Kells served as president of the state WCTU from 1909 to 1913, spending part of 1910 in Scotland as a representative to the organization’s international conference. She died in 1913.
- Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873–1900 (1990)
- William Graham Davis, “Attacking ‘The Matchless Evil’: Temperance and Prohibition in Mississippi, 1817–1908” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1975)
- Belle Kearney, A Slaveholder’s Daughter (1900)
- Mississippi White Ribbon (January 1914)
- Mary Jane Smith, “Constructing White Womanhood in Public: Progressive White Women in a New South” (PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2002)