There was a time when 136th Street in Harlem was bustling with social and political activity; now the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and the New York Urban League remain. Among the individuals and organizations that populated the street was Harlem Renaissance icon novelist Wallace Thurman, who lived at 267 and made his home a gathering spot for other notables of the era. Further to the east once stood the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that incorporated itself in 1925.

Lesser known is the White Rose Mission that was situated almost directly across the street from Thurman’s residence. It was here in 1897 that Victoria Earle Matthews, along with such writers and activists as Maritcha Lyons and Alice Dunbar Nelson, the widow of Paul Laurence Dunbar, established the White Rose Mission to provide a refuge mainly for Black women from the South migrating north to find work and escape from the ravages of Jim Crow.

The Mission—and 136th Street was perhaps its final location—was a combination welfare center, counseling agency and relief station that charged working-class women only a modicum of rent compared with other tenants in Harlem.

But Matthews was much more than a social reformer and missionary for the downtrodden, she was also an accomplished author, journalist and speaker whose voice often joined the cadres of the day opposed to inequality, discrimination and racism.

Given her ancestry, Matthews could have taken a much easier route to comfort and success by passing. Born Victoria Earle Smith May 27, 1861, in Fort Valley, Ga, to a slave woman and a man presumed to be her master, she was a mulatto whose mother refused to submit to bondage, fleeing the plantation but returning after the Civil War to regain custody of young Victoria and her sister.

The family eventually settled in New York City. As a student, Victoria was exceptional and on the road to success, but that trip was derailed when the family became destitute, forcing her to become a domestic worker. But such an ordeal did not stifle Matthews, and she furtively used her employer’s library to indulge her passion for education. At the age of 18, she married William Matthews, and they had one son who died at age 16.

An unfulfilling marriage and the death of her only child drove Victoria into striving to improve the plight of others, and she was soon immersed in social activism and journalism, particularly as an advocate for other women in distress.

Activities

Find out more: Two sources about Mrs. Matthews’ life that were invaluable to me are Hallie Q. Brown, “Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction” (Xenia, Ohio:  Aldine Publishing Company, 1926); and Floris Barnett Cash, “‘Victoria Earle Matthews,’ Notable Black American Women” (Detroit: Gale Research, 1992); http://www.africanamericans.com/VictoriaMatthews.htm 

Her change and commitment were evident: “I then began to hold mothers’ meetings at the various homes where I visited…. One day at one of these meetings, we prayed especially for a permanent home where we might train boys and girls and make a social center for them where the only influence would be good and true and pure.” Their prayers were answered when the owner of a building gave them an apartment rent-free for three months.

By 1892, she was the first president of the Woman’s Loyal Union (WLU) of New York. In this capacity she earned a national reputation, and her organization,which fought for civil rights and against lynchings, became an ardent supporter of the legendary Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her crusades.

Her next organization was the National Federation of Afro-American Women, which was formed with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and in 1896 it merged with the National Colored Women’s League, and ultimately became the National Association of Colored Women, with the renowned Mary Church Terrell as the first president.

All the while, Matthews was massaging her writing career, which burst forth in a spate of short stories, many of which were written years before, and journalism articles about the conditions facing Black working women. Her articles began to appear in several New York publications, including the Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, the New York Herald and the Sunday Mercury. Some of the articles were also circulated to the Black press, most notably the Boston Advocate, the New York Globe and the New York Age.

Her most ambitious work was the novel “Aunt Lindy,” which was published under her pen name, Victoria Earle. The novel, based on a real incident, begins: “In the annals of Fort Valley, Georgia, few events will last longer in the minds of her slow, easy-going dwellers than the memory of a great conflagration that left more than half the town a complete waste. ‘Twas generally conceded to be the most disastrous fire that even her oldest residents had ever witnessed. It was caused, as far as could be ascertained, by someone who, while passing through the sampling room of the Cotton Exchange, had thoughtlessly tossed aside a burning match; this, embedding itself in the soft fleecy cotton, burned its way silently, without smoke, through the heart of a great bale to the flooring beneath, before it was discovered.”

This Week in Black History

August 17, 1887: Marcus Garvey, the founder and leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was born on this date in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica.

August 17, 1990: Celebrated entertainer Pearl Bailey, who starred on Broadway and in film, died on this date.

August 21, 1971: Political prisoner George Jackson was shot in the back during an alleged prison break in San Quentin on this date.

“Black Speeches, Addresses, and Talks of Booker T. Washington” was a book she edited in 1898, three years after her subject delivered his memorable speech at the Cotton Exposition in Atlanta. In “The Value of Race Literature” (1895), she supported the importance of collecting the writings by and about African-American women and men. She was also noted for her effective lectures such as “The Awakening of the Afro-American Woman.”  

In her final days, she resided in Brooklyn at 33 Poplar Street and was a member of St. Philips Episcopal Church. Visitors to the brownstone she lived in will note the plaque that marks the place as “The White Rose Home.” Inside, a large photograph of Matthews hangs above the entryway.

Matthews died of tuberculosis March 10, 1907, at the age of 45 and is buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens.

She was a member of several organizations beyond the one she founded. A look at her dynamic life brings to the fore such important women of her day as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Sarah Remond and Maritcha Lyons, whose life is wonderfully showcased by Tonya Bolden.

At the peak of her activism, the nation was undergoing dramatic change socially, politically and economically. It was the age of Booker T. Washington, and Mrs. Matthews found a very productive niche in it.