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  --  January 4, 1859--February 27, 1912   Table of Contents     MARY BURNETT TALBERT
  --  1862--1923

Brown, Hallie Q.
Homespun heroines



In an humble cottage, May 27, 1861, at Fort Valley, Ga., was born Victoria Earle. She is described as a bright, lovable child, always planning some new game or leading her playmates in some new sport. At school, she easily led her classes, and we are told she often asked questions that startled her teacher by the depth of thought they expressed. All who knew her affirm that while she was high-spirited, quick to resent an injury, especially to her playmates or a cruelty to a dumb creature, she was gentle, respectful to her elders, affectionate and most helpful to all who seemed to need her services.

One can readily imagine that her opportunities for development in the small southern town in the early sixties were meagre enough. She, however, learned almost automatically not only the "knowledge learned in school" but a lover of the woods and fields, she was prone to wander far, far away into the depths of the forest and "list to Natures's teaching."

Observant, resourceful, likely to think things through she came to New York with her mother and sister about 1873, wise beyond her years, a tall, lank, straight haired girl, with large, soulful eyes that hinted of the high-strung romantic nature of the girl.

In the public schools of New York she seemed in her element and making good use of her opportunities she was soon well known for her ready responses to questions that puzzled the others. Being a great reader, she had fuller

knowledge than many who had far superior home advantages.

The child grew rapidly and was truly happy, preparing her lessons, reading whatever she could lay hands on, and stealing away whenever she could into the parks to commune with the birds and flowers so dear to her and with whom she seemed to have a weird understanding. She was a bright, happy, studious child.

Truly Victoria might have uttered Tom Moore's plaint--"From childhood's hours, I've seen my fondest hopes decay." In the midst of her happiness came what was to her a real blow. She was obliged because of family difficulties to leave school and go to work. Nevertheless, with the courage and cheerfulness that characterized her later life, she entered upon her duties and performed them in a highly satisfactory manner. Life was made much happier for her when she found that in the home in which she was employed there was a wonderful library. She longed to get to those books, yet feared to touch them or even ask permission to read one.

At last, one never-to-be-forgotten day, she was sent to the library to dust the books. Her task accomplished she could no longer resist the temptation to open just one. Her attention was fixed immediately. Unconsciously she slipped into a chair and as the day light began to fade she dropped to the floor near a window. So absorbed was she that she did not hear her employer enter the room. He did not see her and in the semi-darkness, he stumbled over her. Great was her confusion, but the kind-hearted man feeling that any child so eager to read should be encouraged, gave her permission to read the books in the great library whenever she could find time. It is unnecessary to say that the book-loving Victoria made good use of his kind permission.

It seemed that she never lost an opportunity to improve her mind, and by means of lectures, special studies, constant contact with trained persons, she gratified to some

extent her thirst for knowledge and became in spite of untoward circumstances an educated, cultured woman.

Victoria Earle was married to William Matthews in New York when she was eighteen years old. Her interest in her studies continued, and to the end of her life she was possessed with the desire to know that she might the better serve her race for which she had a devotion that amounted to a passion.

For many years she wrote for children's papers and was a contributor of stories to the Waverly magazine. Her culture, pleasing personality and intelligent grasp of ideas made a great demand for her as a reader for invalids and others who needed such service.

While still a very young woman, Mrs. Matthews manifested a keen interest in all matters pertaining to her race, and early became active in club work. In 1892, the Woman's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn was formed with Mrs. Matthews as President. She worked with rare intelligence, persistence and enthusiasm for this organization. Writing about her work in those days, the secretary of the Union said, "To her much of the success of the Union is due."

Mrs. Matthews was one of the leaders in that splendid movement to honor, encourage and assist the intrepid Ida B. Wells during her stay in New York after her bitter experience in Memphis, Tenn. Mrs. Matthews' energy and exceptional executive ability went far towards making the demonstration to Miss Wells a brilliant, instructive and profitable affair.

She was one of the group of courageous women who responded eagerly to the call made by Mrs. J. St. Pierre Ruffiin, President of the Woman's Era Club of Boston in July 1895; the call to our women all over the country to gather in Boston for consultation for conference and to band ourselves together for our protection and the welfare of the race.

Truly interesting and inspiring are the reports of Mrs. Matthews'

unselfish devotion to the cause for which those brave women labored. Her suggestions in the general meetings, her indefatigable service on committees, her resourcefulness and courage tended to make her service invaluable to the new organization which later became the National Association of Colored Women. She served as Chairman of the Executive Board in 1896 and later, as National Organizer.

The beginning of the life work of this unique character may best be told in her own words. In answer to the question of a reporter for the New York Sun she said: "Nearly three years ago I lost my only child, a sixteen year old boy, and immediately my heart went out to other people's boys, and girls too, for that matter. I went down to Alabama, visited Tuskegee and several other places, and became much interested in the work that is being done for the colored race in that State. I was being persuaded to go into the work there when a minister here wrote, begging me to come back here and start practical work among my people. In this district, lying between 59th and 127th streets, from Park to First Avenue, there are about 6,000 Afro-Americans, who have mostly been driven away from Bleecker Street by the influx of Italians. I found that this was my field so I began to visit the families. I selected the ones I thought needed me most and tried to be a real friend to the mothers.

When I went into a home to call and found an over-burdened mother preparing a meal in an unpalatable way, I helped her, showing her the right and easier way. If I found a woman doing her laundry work, I turned in and helped her do her rinsing. Then I began to hold mothers' meetings at the various homes where I visited; and you may not believe this, but one day at one of these meetings we prayed especially for a permanent home where we might train the boys and girls and make a social center for them where the only influence would be good and true and pure. Almost immediately Mr. Winthrop Phelps, who owns an

apartment house, offered us one of it flats, rent free for three months to make our experiment. We opened here Feb. 11, 1897."

Because there were no places then in New York where colored girls could go for training in domestic work, cooking classes were organized and were taught by that large hearted, faithful servant of God, Miss Mary Jane Bevier assisted by Miss Victoria Coles. There were sewing classes too, conducted by Mrs. S. E. Wilkerson, Mrs. Mary B. Pope, Miss Mary Lewis and Mrs. H. G. Miller. Dressmaking classes were taught by Mrs. Armand Miller and Mrs. Thomas Jackson. Thus many a young, untrained girl learned something of the "art of doing things" before she ventured out "in service." The colored women stood by the work through every hardship. Miss Lewis and Mrs. Pope are still in the fore front of the work.

The writer remembers too, visiting these little mission rooms and speaking to the large group of eager, restless boys and girls ranging from three to fifteen years of age. Most interesting was the kindergarten class taught by Miss Alice Ruth Moore, later Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar. It was a joy and an inspiration to see the enthusiasm with which this attractive young woman, recently come from her home in the South, gave herself to the work of teaching these neglected little ones, using her own means to purchase many of the numerous gifts and games and aiding by her charming personality in training the children and making them happy in their beloved "mission." The children were truly a varied group, some neat, clean and orderly, giving evidence of careful home training, others sadly neglected, some rude and boisterous, but all learning to love Mrs. Matthews and her faithful helpers and little by little learning important lessons in decency, order, thrift and love for each other.

Being by nature a leader and a teacher, Mrs. Matthews won the most incorrigible of all the boys in taking him aside one day and asking him to "please take charge of

those boys, Kim, Henry and Al especially and see that they keep quiet and give attention." As proud as a major, at being trusted and given responsibility, he not only became orderly and obedient himself, but being the ring leader, kept the others in order, and peace reigned.

At the parting hour, Mrs. Matthews who lived in Brooklyn always went out with the children. It was a pleasing picture to see the black robed, pale woman surrounded by these little ones, each clamoring for a place next to her, as she passed to them with her own hands the flowers, chiefly daisies, which she and her helpers had gathered from the large open spaces then to be found in the Bronx. To these, the Master's "little ones" she was the embodiment of patience, gentleness and love, giving herself not from a sense of duty but giving to that which "is out of sight, that thread of the all-sustaining beauty which runs through all and doth all unite," and who can estimate the influence upon the lives of those poor neglected children? Many of them grown into manhood and womanhood will tell you today that they are serving well their God and their race because of the invaluable lessons in "Mrs. Matthews' White Rose Mission."

In 1900, a girl in the far south desired to come to New York and a friend of Mrs. Matthews wrote and asked her to meet the girl. Every precaution was taken and Mrs. Matthews was at the steamer promptly but one of those unprincipled men who haunted the incoming ships in those days lured her far away and the most diligent search failed to discover her for several days. When found she had passed through a terrible experience and had to be sent back home, a perfect wreck of her former self.

Deeply grieved by this sad incident, Mrs. Matthews and her little band of faithful women resolved that they must take immediate steps to try to prevent similar occurrences and by dint of Mrs. Matthews' earnest solicitation, by newspaper articles and by the united efforts of the workers, a house was secured at 217 East 86th Street and

a "Home for Colored Working Girls" was established. Brave woman! She undertook a mighty task, going forward "not knowing what would befall her," but she builded better than she knew. God in His infinite wisdom and mercy led to her friends both white and colored. Among them were Mrs. C.P. Huntington, the Misses Stillman, Miss Grace Dodge and that faithful adviser and friend who gave years of unselfish devotion to the cause and is still giving of her best, Miss Mary L. Stone, at one time president of the White Rose Industrial Association.

For years, the colored women mentioned before met the boats at the Old Dominion and other piers and directed and helped the strange girls and women, many of whom came wholly unprepared to grapple with the problems of the great city. Thus, as far as we know, Mrs. Matthews was the pioneer in the now extensive work of the Travelers' Aid Society. Later, Miss Dorothy Boyd, then Mrs. A. Rich, sister of Mrs. Matthews took up the work at the New York Docks and after a year or two Mrs. Proctor was engaged to meet and direct the girls at Norfolk, and a perfect chain was established, a chain as it were of "White Roses." "Let us call it White Rose," said the founder in her romantic way, "and I shall always feel that the girls will think of the meaning--purity, goodness and virtue and strive to live up to our beautiful name."

And so as the years rolled on the White Rose grew and flourished, thousands of girls being sheltered, guided, fed, clothed when necessary, many taught to work acceptably in the homes of the Metropolis and many others saved from lives of shame. All sorts and conditions of girls found their way to the White Rose, the illiterate, the needy, the destitute as well as some of the fine specimens of young Negro womanhood, all found a welcome--often without money and without price, and thousands now bless the day when they were guided to the White Rose.

As to the woman, she is best revealed in her work. Writing of her at the beginning of her work in the "mission,"

a reporter for a daily New York paper thus described her: Mrs. Victoria Earle Matthews is a Salvation Army field officer, a College Settlement worker, a missionary, a teacher, a preacher, a Sister of Mercy, all in one, and without being in the least conscious of it."

Perhaps because in her ideas she was far in advance of the times in which she lived, possibly no woman was more greatly misunderstood. Her enthusiasm and quick grasp of any situation, together with a certain dramatic quality gave her a forceful, decided manner of speaking that was not always understood. Urged on by her eager, restless spirit and that foresight which enabled her to see the end, she could not always wait for others to see, but seemed impelled to carry out her plans immediately, as if there might not be time enough to do all that had to be done. This was because she saw that the need for earnest, practical work was so great that she could not wait--perhaps, too, in some mysterious way she realized that for her what was to be done must be done quickly; and so she worked tremendously, overtaxing her strength and ofttimes with her extraordinary influence sweeping others along with her until she accomplished a sufficient amount of her work to show the world what was burning in her heart--the desire to do a practical, useful and at the same time cultured work for her race.

Her utter devotion to the race was shown in all that she did. Long before the interest in Race Literature became general, she was an enthusiast on the subject and placed in the White Rose Home a choice collection of books written by and about the Negro in America, forming, as a white reporter wrote, "One of the most unique special libraries in New York." The books of this library were used by Mrs. Matthews as a basis for her class in Race History. An inspiring sight it was to see this trial woman, her life slowly ebbing away, as she sought eagerly, almost impetuously, to impart to a group of intelligent young men and women the knowledge of the work and worth of the

men and women of their race--a knowledge with which she was completely saturated. Thus she hoped to inspire in them confidence in their group and in themselves--confidence and a hope that she believed would incite them to noble thoughts and great ideas and deeds. Who dares to estimate to what extent her dream was realized?

It was the writer's privilege to serve as assistant superintendent of the Home with Mrs. Matthews for several months and later to be elected superintendent of the Home. During the months of close association, the inner life of the woman was revealed, and her faith in God and her race, her courage, her sympathetic understanding with all phases of human life were a revelation and an inspiration. Her spiritual life was far deeper than many of her closest friends realized. The six years spent in the work after her "shoulders had dropped the load" were among the most interesting and helpful experiences of the writer's life.

Infinitely greater, however, than anything that can be said of her was the life that she gave for the cause that was her dream, her passion, her love; and "Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends." She did what she could, she gave her all and the White Rose Home is her monument. Not the institution alone, but that which it represents. The fuller, richer lives of thousands of Negro girls and the enriched lives of their children's children shall bear witness through the ages to the vision, the courage, the willing sacrifice of a Negro woman with a frail body and a mighty soul.

George Eliot's poem seems to breathe her prayer:
"May I reach the highest heaven.
Be to other souls a cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smile that knows no cruelty,
So may I join the choir invisible,
Whose music makes the gladness of the world!"

  --  January 4, 1859--February 27, 1912   Table of Contents     MARY BURNETT TALBERT
  --  1862--1923