Sunday, April 17, 2016

Victoria Earle Matthews, Writer, Social Reformer

Victoria in 1902, courtesy of G. F. Richings
Victoria Earle Matthews was a writer, public speaker, and organizer who advocated for the development of Race Literature and the voice of the African-American in literature and civil works. 

"Our history and individuality as a people not only provides material for masterly treatment, but would seem to make a race literature a necessity as an outlet for the unnaturally suppressed inner lives which our people have been compelled to lead." ~ Victoria Earle Matthews

Victoria Earle Matthews was born on May 27th, 1861 in Fort Valley, Georgia to Caroline Smith, a slave, and to a man who was believed to be the family's white master. Caroline escaped from the plantation at the beginning of the Civil War, but returned after Emancipation and through legal action obtained custody of Victoria and several other of her children, some of whom were being raised as white by their former master.

The family lived in Virginia for three years, then moved to New York City during the 1870s. Victoria was mostly self-educated and displayed an ardent desire for learning. She attended grammar school for several years but had to leave to help support her family; she then utilized the library of the family she was working for to continue her reading and studies, with the owner's permission.

At the age of eighteen Victoria married William E. Matthews, a biracial coachman. They had one son, Lamartine, who would die at 16.

Shortly after marriage, Victoria began her career as a journalist, working as a reporter for various white newspapers, including the New York Times, Herald, and Sunday Mercury. She was also a correspondent for many black publications, including the Southern Christian Recorder, New York Age, and Woman's Era.

She likely began this career as early as 1879, and continued writing articles and columns through 1889.

In both her writing and later in her public speeches and community service, Victoria's intent and focus was in finding ways for the African American community to take their inner anguish, a byproduct of slavery, and transform it into outer accomplishments in literary and civic areas.

Besides journalism, Victoria was an admired writer of fiction. In 1889 she published Aunt Lindy: A Story Founded on Real Life. Originally composed for a literature magazine, the story was popular enough that it was also printed as a stand-along piece.

In  the novel, Victoria describes a black woman who considers murdering her cruel former master but is persuaded not to, and instead helps him heal from his own pain, in the process, healing herself. The tale of racial reconciliation and forgiveness became her best-known work of fiction.

Civic Organization

Victoria's involvement with activism began at a young age. In 1882 at the age of 21, she established the  Inquiry Club with black historian and journalist John Edward Bruce; this was an organization through which African Americans could study the condition and status of black people in America.

She became involved in politics, distinguishing herself by writing columns rallying black voters to support Benjamin Harrison in the Presidential Election of 1888. Her political activism led to the organization of women's clubs, and in 1892 along with several other black women, she founded the Woman's Loyal Union, of which she was President.

Initially founded to support Ida B. Wells and her publication of anti-lynching writings, the goal of the Union was to become the first national anti-lynching organization. In 1894, the group gathered and presented to Congress petitions from fourteen states, New York City, and Canada in support of a resolution to investigate lynching in the South.

In 1895 she helped establish the National Federation of Afro-American Women and served as its first chairperson. The following year, she assisted with the merge of that operation with the National Colored Women's League to create the National Association of Colored Women, where she was the organizer from 1897-99.

In the years of these organizations, Victoria worked closely with such activists as Mary Church Terrell and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and was a popular speaker at conferences. Some of her most powerful and lasting communications were through the speeches she made.

The Values of Race Literature

In 1895 at the First Congress of Of Colored Women, Victoria delivered a speech titled "The Values of Race Literature," the focus of which was race-based literature by both white and black authors, and how it affected the social condition of African-Americans.

Victoria raised the question if "Race Literature" was even needed for the black community - why, she asked, is it even necessary to have a category of literature such as Race Literature separate from American Literature? Was one not part of the other?

She argued that they were not, as the black community had a vastly different experience and history in America, and conveying that through writing and developing their own category of "Race Literature" would not only be educational for other black people and for whites (who currently only saw the black race through a myriad of stereotypes), but it would be healing for the black community, and could serve as a distinct source of pride.

During slavery, black people were discouraged or blocked from education, something that was not only damaging to the race mentally and physically, but that would perpetuate the myth of the black person as uneducated. In sprite of these efforts there were those who took up the pen and book anyway.

Victoria put it this way: "Many though in chains mastered the common rudiments and others possessing talent of higher order... dared to seek the sources of knowledge and wield a pen. While oppressive legislature, aided by gross inhumane customs, successfully retarded all general efforts toward improvement, the race suffered physically and mentally under a great wrong, an appalling evil, in contrast with which the religious caste prejudice of India appears as a glimmering torch to a vast consuming flame."

She went on: "But all this impious wrong has made a Race Literature a possibility, even a necessity to dissipate the odium conjured up by the term 'colored' persons, not originally used designed to humiliate, but unfortunately still used to express not only an inferior order, but to accentuate and call unfavorable attention to the most ineradicable difference between the races."

Victoria urged black writers to take up pen and contribute to the development of Race Literature, a body of work by African Americans that would be distinctive to their experience and did not currently exist. The black community and culture had distinguished itself among music by that time (at least by Europeans such as composer Antonin Dvorak), who heralded "Negro melodies" as being unique, beautiful, varied, "a product of the soil," and "all that is needed for a noble school of music" - why, then, should they not do the same and create a distinct and clear voice among literature?

She encouraged this, and for the abandonment of racial stereotypes that were common in the day in books and writing; that of the Negro as a poor, pathetic creature, given such character names as "Darkey" - this brand of writing, she implored her listeners, must be avoided not only by writers, but also by readers.

"When the foundations of such a literature shall have been properly laid, the benefit to be derived will at once be apparent. There will be a revelation to our people, and it will enlarge our scope, make us better known wherever real lasting culture exists, will undermine and utterly drive out the traditional Negro in dialect... it will suggest to the world the wrong and contempt with which the lion viewed the picture that the hunter and famous painter besides, had drawn the King of the Forest."

White Rose Industrial Association

When her son died at the age of 16, Victoria went through a period of deep mourning. As she espoused so frequently in her speeches and writing, however, she drew from this pain the motivation and desire to help others, and started a vigilant social welfare organization for young African Americans.

In 1896 during a trip through the South, Victoria bore witness to the living and working conditions of black people in cities and on plantations, which she described as "deplorable." Adding to the unsafe and appalling situations were employment agencies, companies that recruited young black women to work in both northern and southern cities for "unscrupulous" businesses and "immoral purposes."

To prevent the exploitation and eventual poverty of these women, Victoria established the White Rose Mission in new York City, a black settlement house for single women and girls.

The Mission was not only a safe place to stay, but also offered classes on such topics as child-raising, hygiene, sewing, dressmaking, cooking, and other skills, with Victoria and her volunteers giving classes both within the Mission and through visits to residences. They helped young black women prepare for employment by teaching domestic skills, and in later years, by running an employment service.

With the overall well-being of their residents in mind, the organization also offered kindergarten classes,  a district nurse, arranged outings to the beach and circus, and prepared Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. They also offered a class in race literature taught by Victoria to promote pride in their black culture.

In 1900, another service was added: a traveler's aid representative, who would meet young black women and girls from the South at the docks when they arrived in the city, looking for employment. The representative provided advice and safe escort to the Mission, where the girls would be given temporary housing.

There were other charities before that time with similar goals, but this was the most focused of its kind in New York City and lead the way for more extensive work by other groups in the future.

By the time of her death in 1907, Victoria had established herself as one of the most respected African American minds in the nation. She was renowned for her grace, courage, and leading spirit among many organizations, and her unflagging belief in the power of African Americans to rise above and share their unique culture and voice, to the benefit of all citizens.

  • Victoria Earle Matthews, Steve Kramer, American National Biography Online.October 2008.
  • Broken Utterances: A Selected Anthology of 19th Century Black Women's Social Thought. Three Sistah's Press, LLC. 2007.
  • Victoria Earle Matthews, Wilma J. Johnson, Black, 2016.

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