On this day in 1861 was the bith of Victoria Earle Matthews (nee Ella Victoria Smith), an American author and essayist known for her work in the settlement movement, and especially for civil rights issues. Victoria (then Ella) was born into slavery in Georgia, as the daughter of a slave and her master. Shortly after her birth, Victoria’s mother ran away to New York, leaving her daughters behind as she worked to earn enough money to purchase freedom for herself and her daughters. She did in fact return, and was the first black woman to be recognized in Georgia’s court system.
After being emancipated, Victoria moved with her family to New York. She attended public school until leaving to work as a domestic servant to support her family. In between working, she read books in the library of the home she worked in; the owner caught her, but gave her permission to read whenever she had time, which allowed her to self-educate herself. Though she married at 18, Victoria began writing as a journalist and a fiction writer. Much of her work involved her political interests, especially regarding the issues that black people faced at the time. She wrote about the African-American struggle, the idea of Post-Civil War reconciliation, and also about miscegenation– something that particularly struck home for her, as someone with very noticeable European ancestry. She also became the first president of the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York (a black woman’s club and a civil rights organization) and co-founded the National Federation of Afro-American Women (which later merged with the National Colored Women’s League to become the National Association of Colored Women.)
Victoria’s appearance– she had fair skin and a very European appearance– allowed her to gain preferential treatment in a society still prejudiced against people with darker skin. However, she used that to help others who didn’t have the same advantage. She became involved in settlement work, which was a social movement aimed towards getting the mingling of the rich and the poor, but especially towards providing services like education, daycare, and healthcare to the poor in urban areas, to help alleviate their poverty. At first, Victoria worked by visiting people and families, going house to house providing services like helping a mother do laundry, or prepare a meal. In her experience visiting these households one by one, she learned of the lives they lead, and their difficulties with poverty, bad housing, limited economic opportunities, etc.
Victoria was especially concerned with the plight of young black girls, who were arriving in the North in large numbers to find work and better life opportunities than they could get in the Jim Crow south, and being lured into prostitution. After touring the South to investigate organizations and red-light districts that were victimizing young black girls, Victoria created the White Rose Industrial Association, a training facility where black girls could come to learn domestic work. She also wanted to make education a part of what she offered, and began teaching them reading, writing, and math, as well as literature and race history. In time, wanting to do more Victoria and her supporters (including a number of other black women and ministers) bought a home that they named the White Rose Mission (or the White Rose Home for Colored Working Girls). Volunteers would meet migrants at the train station and offer them safe housing, making sure they didn’t fall into the hands of traffickers and others who might try to trap them into something more dangerous. They were given a place to live, and at the Mission they would also be educated, trained in practical skills, and encouraged by Victoria to be self-sufficient. The White Rose Home not only gave them the chance for future work, but a safe place to live, where they could always be around their teachers and thus learning when they could, as well as allowing them a place to enjoy socializing at cultural and literary events.
Victoria died in 1907; she had no living children, as her only son died at the age of 15. But she left a legacy behind, including that of an organization named after her: The Victoria Earle Matthews (Mothers) Club, an all-black organization that worked to aid young black women and girls who had been abused or threatened with sexual abuse.