African American Heritage Trail – Josephine & Florida Ruffin

February 1, 2013

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was born in Boston to Eliza St. Pierre, from Cornwall, England, and John St. Pierre, who was of mixed descent. Her father was a successful clothing importer and exporter. Her parents sent her to integrated schools in Salem, later to Bowdoin School in the West End after Boston integrated its schools, and then to finishing school in New York City.

In 1858, at age 16, Josephine Ruffin married George Ruffin. The couple lived on Charles Street on Beacon Hill where they raised their children, who went on to pursue careers in law, manufacturing, music, writing, and publishing. George was the first African American to graduate from Harvard Law School, and his rising political star put Josephine Ruffin in a strong position to advocate for the causes dear to her. She served on the boards of the Massachusetts Moral Education Society and the Massachusetts School Suffrage Association, where she became acquainted with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone. Stone and Howe invited Ruffin to join the New England Women’s Club, and she became its first African American member.

George Ruffin died in 1886, and Josephine Ruffin lived another 38 years, devoting herself to the causes of civil rights, women’s suffrage, and children’s education. She started the Woman’s Era Club, whose membership included middle-class, educated black women who focused on the rights of African American women. With the money left to her by George, she was able to finance and, with her daughter Florida, serve as editor of the organization’s monthly publication, Woman’s Era. Ruffin was the first African American woman to own, edit, and publish a newspaper for black women. She also became a member of the New England Women’s Press Association at the time she wrote for the Boston Courant, another African American weekly newspaper.

Ruffin believed the organizations established across the country by black women should come together, and she organized the first black women’s club conference. The National Federation of Afro-American Women was subsequently formed and eventually merged with the Colored Women’s League to become the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). “Our women’s movement,” Ruffin said, “is led and directed by women for the good of women and men, for the benefit of all humanity.”[1]

When Ruffin attended the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Milwaukee in 1900, she represented the New Era Club, the New England Women’s Club, and the New England Women’s Press Club. The Federation refused to let Ruffin represent the New Era Club or to permit its membership in the Federation because of its affiliation with African American women. Ruffin declined to be a delegate for any of the clubs she had come to represent. Her protest, known as the “Ruffin Incident,” was reported around the country.

Today Ruffin is honored at the Massachusetts State House as one of five women to represent the story of women from the state.  Josephine Ruffin became a link between white reformers, many of them women, and African Americans. “For the sake of . . . our children, it is … our … ‘duty’ to stand forth and declare ourselves and principles, to teach an ignorant and suspicious world . . . our aims and interests are identical with those of all good aspiring women,” she wrote.[2]

Ruffin died in 1924 at the age of 81. She was buried in Mount Auburn next to her husband George and not far from the gravesite of Julia Ward Howe and other friends and associates. Ruffin’s daughter Florida Ruffin Ridley continued working as an essayist and journalist, focusing on questions of race relations, and also maintained an abiding interest in black history. In 1943, Florida Ruffin Ridley was interred beside her parents among a community of African Americans and whites engaged in the battle for human equality.





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Images (top to bottom):

– Josephine Ruffin. New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
– Ruffin Monument. Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2006.

[1]  Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, “Address to the First National Conference of Colored Women,” 1895.
[2]  Ruffin, “Address to the First National Conference of Colored Women,” 1895.

Funding for this project has been provided by the 1772 Foundation; Mass Humanities; the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (made possible by the National Park Service, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom); the Cambridge Arts Council and the Watertown Cultural Council (local agencies supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency); and contributions from Sydney Nathans, Mary K. Zervigon, and the family of Katherine Knox.

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