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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound, and it is time they were given a voice. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, we hear you.
Josephine St. Pierre was born on August 31, 1842, in Boston, MA, to parents of an inter-racial marriage. Her mother was of white English decent and her father was a black Frenchman from Martinique. The year of her birth is significant because in 1842 every state in the Union, except Pennsylvania, had miscegenation laws in place which made marriage for interracial couples illegal.
Josephine, with her dark skin, made it impossible for her parents to deny a relationship. Luckily, as Massachusetts was one of the more liberal, forward-thinking states, they repealed miscegenation in 1843.
Travel to other states remained difficult for the St. Pierres as many states, especially in the South, waited to repeal their miscegenation laws until a Supreme Court decision in 1967 declaring the laws to be unconstitutional forced them to do so.
Though discrimination was a part of Josephine’s life from the day of her birth, she had the unique perspective of witnessing some of the privilege granted to her mother because she was white. However, much of that privilege was negated by her association with blacks. The St. Pierres were part of Boston’s black society and Josephine’s father was the founder of the Boston Zion Church. Their family was accepted in the African-American community and tolerated in the white community.
A prime example of this was schooling. For Josephine to receive anything close to a quality education, she was forced to travel to the desegregated schools in Salem and Charleston. It wasn’t until 1855 that Boston schools were desegregated and Josephine was able to finish her schooling from home at Bowdoin School.
Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, Josephine married George Ruffin, who was her senior by eight years. George was the son of free blacks who, like her own parents, were part of Boston’s leading African-American families. As was expected of her, Josephine quickly became a mother and was tasked with raising the Ruffin children. Josephine gave birth to five children, but one of the boys died in infancy.
Josephine was an activist at heart. She and George became entrenched in the abolitionist movement, befriending the likes of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. When the Civil War broke out, the Ruffins worked tirelessly for the Sanitation Commission, Lincoln’s re-election campaign, and towards the recruitment of black soldiers for the Union. In addition, Josephine became involved with the suffrage movement, working alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
After the war, Josephine remained active with the suffragettes with a special interest in the treatment of black women. She became a member of the Massachusetts School Suffrage Association and the Massachusetts Moral Education Association. These were both clubs for white women, however, because of Josephine’s standing in society and her previous work with the suffragette movement, she was allowed to join.
It was there that she met Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone and in them found allies in her desire to fight for not only women’s rights, but also for equality among the races. This quickly became a contentious subject throughout the suffrage movement, which eventually led to a split.
In 1869, the women’s suffrage movement split into two different factions. The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, believed that any step forward for equality, whether it was for women or blacks, was a step forward for everyone. The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, believed that the rights of women had to be placed above all other considerations and supporting black civil rights, which at the time was geared specifically toward men, could be nothing but a detriment to and distraction from women’s suffrage. For obvious reasons, Josephine sided with the AWSA.
It was also around this time that Josephine began writing for The Courant, a black weekly paper, and she became the first black member of the New England Women’s Press Association. In 1875, she helped establish the West End Relief Association (WERA). The implicit goal of the association was to provide temporary housing until permanent housing could be found for destitute colored children. There were already a number of children’s homes and asylums in Boston, but none of these accepted black children-forcing the majority of them out onto the street or worse. WERA helped to provide a better alternative.
With WERA up and running, Josephine and her husband created the Boston Kansas Relief Association in 1879. At this time, many black families from the North and poor black refugees trying to escape from the South were moving to Kansas only to find themselves destitute and largely unwelcome in a strange land. The Ruffin’s association helped to provide food, clothing, and any other assistance they could furnish to help these families get settled and prosper.
While George was supportive of Josephine’s activism and often worked alongside her, it was after his death in 1886 that Josephine truly began her work. Using the money she inherited from her husband, Josephine and her daughter Florida founded a newspaper with a monthly publication called, “The Women’s Era.” It was not only the first newspaper published by black women, but it was also the first newspaper dedicated to covering the needs and interests of black women.
Josephine used the paper to champion women’s rights, highlight the double-jeopardy inherent in being both black and a woman, and to call attention to the deeds of black women everywhere. Josephine and her daughter successfully ran the paper until 1897.
In 1890, Josephine joined the New England Women’s Club. This club was founded in 1868, yet Josephine was the first black member. She became the bridge between the affluent white reformers and Boston’s black elite. However, this was not enough for Josephine, so in 1893, with the help of her daughter Florida and a school principal named Maria Baldwin, she founded the Women’s New Era Club of Boston.
It was the first club of its kind, as it was founded and led by black women. Josephine insisted that it wasn’t an exclusively black club, however all of its initial members were black. The motto of the club, “Help to Make the World a Better Place,” was taken from one of Lucy Stone’s speeches. The women met twice a month, and by its second year of existence membership had reached 133.
Like the white clubs for women, this one raised money for scholarships; sponsored kindergartens; organized clinics; and held classes in civics, domestic science, and literature. However, their programs were geared toward the black community and they also worked on issues specific to the black community such as anti-lynching reforms. In 1894, “The Women’s Era” became the voice of the Women’s New Era Club and as such gave the club a means in which to advertise their events and distribute their message of equality for all races and genders.
In addition to helping the black communities of Boston, The Women’s New Era Club sparked similar clubs to form all over the nation. In 1895, Josephine brought several of these clubs together for The First National Conference of Colored Women. It was attended by 100 women from twenty different clubs around the nation. Josephine argued that the only way to ensure the welfare of the Black communities was looked after was for leaders within those communities to step forward and take ownership of that welfare. The women in attendance whole heartedly agreed with this assertion and the National Federation of Afro-American Women was founded with Margaret Murray Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington, as the first president. Their stated mission was to protest against the stereotyped images of black women by showing that there were large numbers of black women who were cultured and educated.
At this time, black women were generally assumed to be ignorant and immoral. Many southern women’s clubs refused to admit black members for this reason. A particular letter that sparked outrage shortly before Josephine organized the 1895 conference was from the president of the Missouri Press Association to Florence Balgarnie, the secretary of the Anti-Lynching Committee of London, where he stated that black women were “prostitutes, liars and thieves.” There was a desperate need to disprove these beliefs of black women.
The following year, 1896, the National Federation of Afro-American Women, the Women’s New Era Club of Boston, and the Colored Women’s League of Washington D. C. merged to become the National Association of Colored Women. Mary Church Terrell was named the first president with Josephine and several others serving as vice-presidents. In addition to dispelling the stereotypes of black women, this new organization took on the goal to elevate the lives of black women everywhere. To do this, they championed civil and political rights for blacks and fostered better understanding of interracial relations.
They strove to raise the standards of the home by encouraging women and children to get a good education, believing that with improved education the conditions of family life would naturally improve as well. Their motto was aptly, “Lifting as We Climb.” The National Association of Colored Women served the black community until 1935, when Mary McLeod Bethune created the National Council of Negro Women.
Despite all of her work and the respect she held not only amongst the black communities, but in Boston as well, Josephine still butted heads with those intent on perpetuating segregation. In 1900, the Biennial General Federation of Women’s Clubs (Federation) was held in Milwaukee, WI. Despite the location being in Northern territory, the women who held power at the time were from the South, and as such refused to let Josephine attend the conference as a representative of a black club.
As she was a member of white clubs, they were forced to allow her admittance, however, when she insisted that she represented her black club as well women tried to rip her credentials off of her chest on the floor of the convention hall. Other black women had been turned away as well, however none of them with as much drama as Josephine, which led to the whole debacle being dubbed the “Ruffin incident.”
Papers across the nation covered the scandal and brought the debate to a national level. Many papers, starting with the Catholic Women’s League of Chicago, came out in support of Josephine and the right of black clubs to be represented at the Federation. Supporters came out of the woodwork, with many white clubs threatening to pull their association and dues from the Federation unless they changed their policies.
Supporters of the Federation claimed that black women had their own clubs and could do their own work there, and the Federation itself bemoaned that the color issue had been forced upon them unfairly, despite the fact that months earlier the Federation had invited the New Era Club to attend and happily accepted their dues. For obvious reasons, this last revelation did little to help the Federation’s claims.
Relations with the Federation aside, this incident provided the black women’s clubs with an unexpected boon. With the nation’s eyes upon them, black women were given the opportunity to step into a sympathetic spotlight and speak for themselves. In so doing, they showed the nation that the stereotypes that had plagued them for so long were unfounded, as one educated, eloquent black woman after another stepped forward to speak and defend her rights.
Because of this, many white clubs began reaching out to and working with black clubs, overcoming long held prejudices. The Federation’s blatant discrimination provided a key turning point in the history of women’s clubs.
As the club movement waned in popularity, Josephine found other avenues for her activism. In 1910 she was one of the charter members of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. Shortly after that she co-founded the League of Women for Community Service. This league, which is still active today, works to help families-in- need within Boston’s black communities. Josephine lived to see women win the right to vote, and remained a staunch activist for black rights until her death. She passed away on March 13, 1924, at the age of 82, from nephritis. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, this is in your honor.
Thank you for all that you did.