Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin's story has an interesting connection to Sarah Parker Remond. Her mother was an English-born white woman, and her father was the son of a Frenchman from the island of Martinique. John St. Pierre was a prosperous clothes dealer and founder of a Boston Zion church. Since the Boston public schools were still segregated, the St. Pierres sent their daughter to Salem, where thanks to John Remond's efforts, the schools were integrated. By the age of 16, Josephine had graduated from a Boston finishing school, completed two years of private tutoring in New York, and married George Lewis Ruffin, the son of another one of Boston's leading African-American families. He would later graduate from Harvard Law School, serve on the Boston City Council and in the state legislature, and as Boston's first black municipal judge.

Shortly after their marriage in 1858, the Ruffins went to England. We're not sure why. Was it to escape discrimination or to improve and enjoy themselves as many well-off white newlyweds did? In any case, it's another connection with Sarah Remond, and one wonders if as two black women from Massachusetts, they might have met in London. But unlike Sarah Remond, they returned home after six months. They got involved in the war effort, helping to recruit soldiers for the Mass 54th and 55th regiments and working for the Sanitation Commission. They bought a house onBoston's Beacon Hill, and began a family.

Over the next few years, Josephine and George Lewis Ruffin took an active part in many different reform organizations. Josephine was an ardent supporter of woman suffrage, and she became friends with prominent white suffragists like Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone. A group of these women had founded the New England Women's Club in 1868; Ruffin was its first black member when she joined in the mid l890s. She was often the link between wealthy white reformers and the city's black elite (and vice-versa). She wrote for the black weekly paper, the Courant and became a member of the New England Women's Press Association. When George Lewis Ruffin died at the age of 52 in 1886, Josephine herself was only 44. She used her financial security and organizational abilities to start the Woman's Era, the country's first newspaper published by and for African-American women. Financed by Josephine Ruffin and edited by her and her daughter Florida, this monthly, illustrated magazine (which lasted seven years) urged its readers-- mostly middle class black women-- to become informed about and actively involved in public issues such as suffrage and civil rights. While promoting interracial activities, the Woman's Era called on black women to demand increased rights for their race.

Although Josephine Ruffin socialized and worked together with white women reformers, the era of Jim Crow brought with it growing resistance to integration. In 1893, Ruffin founded a club for black women--the Woman's Era Club. Within two years, it had more than 133 members who met twice a month and paid annual dues of one dollar. The Woman's Era club was "not necessarily a colored woman's club, but a club started and led by colored women." There were "so many questions which, as colored women, we are called upon to answer." It's motto was "Make the World Better." Virtually every city and rural community in the country had at least one organization like this for black women, usually led by a small elite of educated, middle class matrons, who believed they could solve the problems of the race through intensive self-help activities aimed at improving the home and the community. Like white women's clubs, they raised funds for scholarships, held classes in civics, domestic science, literature, sponsored kindergartens, organized clinics (They also put on musicals, literary events, art exhibits). Like white clubwomen, they believed in the importance of the home and the moral influence of women within it. But, black women felt a special calling --racial uplift. Mary Church Terrell wrote that the club members "have determined to come into the closest possible touch with the masses of our women, through whom the womanhood of our people is always judged." Middle class black women came together to vindicate their own respectability and uplift the downtrodden of their race. What they did for women they did for the race.

Josephine Ruffin believed a national organization of black women's clubs was needed; and in 1895, she convened the first national conference in Boston, which was attended by 100 women from 20 clubs in 10 states. In her opening address, she urged the audience to protest against the stereotyped images of black women." We are not drawing the color line ... we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and cordially inviting and welcoming any others to join us." This organization was the National Federation of Afro-Am Women, which in 1896 merged with the Colored Women's League to form the National Association of Colored Women, with Mary Church Terrell as President. Josephine Ruffin was one of several vice-presidents of the new organization.

Just as the NACW was forming, Josephine Ruffin was de-segregating the New England Women's Club, and when the General Federation of Women's Clubs met in Milwaukee in 1900, she planned to attend as a representative of three organizations--the New Era Club, the New England Women's Club, and the New England Woman's Press Club. But southern women were in positions of power in the General Federation, and when the Executive Committee discovered that all of the New Era's club members were black women, they would not accept Ruffin's credentials. Some even tried to snatch her membership badge from her chest on the convention floor. Ruffin was told that she could be seated as a representative of the two white clubs but not the black one. She refused on principle and was excluded from the proceedings. These events became known as "the Ruffin Incident" and were widely covered in newspapers around the country, most of whom supported Ruffin. (Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, did not: Despite numerous appeals, he refused to use his influence or take a stand on the matter.) Afterwards, disillusioned, The Woman's Era Club made an official statement "that colored women should confine themselves to their clubs and the large field of work open to them there."

The New Era Club disbanded in 1903 but Josephine Ruffin remained active. In 1910, she was one of the charter members of the Boston chapter of NAACP (which was the first local branch of the national association) and, along with other women who had belonged to the New Era Club, she co-founded the League of Women for Community Service which still exists today.

(Born Boston, August 31, 1842; died Boston, March 13, 1924. Buried Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library.)