Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

By Kathryn S. Gardiner


Victoria Earle Matthews

A woman freed from slavery by the 13th Amendment authored works on the arduous internal struggles of life, including forgiving oppressors, while she actively worked to improve the lives of women of color in the post-war era.


“The quick, vengeful flame leaped in her eyes, as her mind, made keen by years of secret suffering and toil, traveled through time and space; she saw wrongs which no tongue can enumerate; demoniac gleams of exultation and bitter hatred settled up her now grim features; a pitiless smile wreathed her set lips, as she gazed with glaring eyeballs at the helpless, hopeless ‘victim of the great fire,’ as though surrounded by demons; a dozen wicked impulses rushed through her mind—a life for a life—no mortal eye was near…”

 

Though Aunt Lindy is Victoria’s only short story still easily available to the public, records of her other writings reveal multiple tales of forgiveness.

 

As a writer, Victoria Earle Matthews told the story of Aunt Lindy, a woman—once enslaved, but now free—who finds herself alone with her former master. The man is gravely injured in a fire and entirely at Lindy’s mercy. And mercy it indeed becomes as Victoria’ protagonist fights against the “vengeful flame” and instead heals the man. She is rewarded for this by the man’s changed soul and the return of one of the sons who had been stolen from her by that same slave owner.

 

Though Aunt Lindy is Victoria’s only short story still easily available to the public, records of her other writings reveal multiple tales of forgiveness. “Matthews’s career,” reads the Oxford Reference, “was driven by a belief in converting her people’s internal devastations into brilliant external accomplishments.” It would be a story Victoria would play out in her own life, and one she had to begin the day she was born in slavery in Fort Valley, Ga., on May 27, 1861. Her mother was an enslaved woman named Caroline Smith and her father was likely the man who claimed them both as property.

 

The homeowner caught Victoria reading and fortunately did not condemn the practice.

 

While Victoria (born Ella Victoria Smith) was still young, mother Caroline fled Georgia for New York at the start of the Civil War, leaving Victoria and an older sister behind. However, she returned in 1869 and mother and daughters reunited. Now emancipated, all three relocated to New York City.

 

For a brief time in this new city, Victoria attended public school, but the small family’s financial pressures soon forced her to drop out and gain work as a domestic servant. The home in which Victoria worked had an expansive library. The homeowner caught Victoria reading and fortunately did not condemn the practice. Victoria was granted permission to read after her work was done. Victoria, of course, began to work much faster to make time for reading.

 

“When home has been devastated, hearts only may feel and know the extent of the void; no pen or phrase can estimate it,” wrote Victoria…

 

At age 18, Victoria married William E. Matthews, a coachman, and the two had a son they named Lamartine. As a young wife and mother, Victoria started working to establish herself as a journalist and writer. Those ambitions blended well with her greater interest in politics and she turned her focus to the struggle of African Americans following the Civil War. In 1892, she co-organized a testimonial dinner for Ida B. Wells and her anti-lynching campaign. These events lead to the creation of the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn. Victoria would serve as the first president of the WLU, a civil rights organization.

 

In September of 1895, Victoria would be challenged once again by the pain life can bring when son Lamartine died around the age of 16. “When home has been devastated, hearts only may feel and know the extent of the void; no pen or phrase can estimate it,” wrote Victoria in Aunt Lindy. With this tragedy still fresh, she turned her energies to helping young people Lamartine’s age, including a brief return to the South where she looked into what educational opportunities were provided to black citizens and immigrants. Soon enough, though, a minister persuaded her to return to those in need in New York.

…she noted the specific issues plaguing the cities African Americans, namely “limited economic opportunities, inadequate housing, poverty, prejudice, and racially motivated violence,”

Victoria spent her time as a leader and an organizer, but never lost sight of the day-to-day practical challenges of life. In neighborhoods where need seemed the greatest, she would go house to house, offering whatever help she could, from laundry to making family meals for overworked mothers. In this intensive work, she noted the specific issues plaguing the cities African Americans, namely “limited economic opportunities, inadequate housing, poverty, prejudice, and racially motivated violence,” she said.

 

Victoria’s own relationship with racial prejudice was a curious one. As a woman of mixed race, her features favored her white ancestry. This fair-skinned appearance, as well as her education, allowed her to move through circles of society often locked to her peers with darker skin regardless of their background or education. Victoria, however, consistently aligned with African Americans of every community and took great pride in her race. At the time, she was best known for her speeches “The Value of Race Literature” and “The Role of Afro-American Women,” both of which were rooted in her racial pride and sense of self-worth.

…when Victoria observed that new arrivals to the city, especially women, were often victimized at the train station, she arranged for volunteers to meet new people and escort them to safe housing.)

Victoria Earle Matthews

“and the memory of their oppressors awoke but to the call of fitful retrospection.”

As Jim Crow laws tightened in the South, more and more black men and women moved North looking for work and opportunity. In this Great Migration, Victoria spied a need within all the need—namely that of the young women who lacked safe places to stay and job skills. She soon provided those in the form of an apartment house, afforded with the help with Winthrop Phelps, a white philanthropist. The White Rose Industrial Home for Working Class Negro Girls opened on Feb. 11, 1897, providing young black women a home and training in domestic work. (Revealing her eye for detail, when Victoria observed that new arrivals to the city, especially women, were often victimized at the train station, she arranged for volunteers to meet new people and escort them to safe housing.)

 

“…in the busy life that freedom gave them, oft, when work was done and the night of life threw its waning shadows around them, their tears would fall for the scattered voices—they would mourn o’er their past oppression,” Victoria wrote in Aunt Lindy. “Yet they hid their grief from an unsympathizing generation, and the memory of their oppressors awoke but to the call of fitful retrospection.”

 

Victoria died at only age 45 in New York City on March 10, 1907, but what she’d begun would have no end. The White Rose Industrial Home, also known as the White Rose Mission, became the blueprint for similar organizations such as the YMCA and other programs still in operation to this day.