Ruffin, Josephine St. Pierre (1842–1924)

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Ruffin, Josephine St. Pierre (1842–1924)

African-American civic leader and reformer. Born Josephine St. Pierre in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 31, 1842; died in Boston on March 13, 1924; daughter of John St. Pierre (a clothing dealer) and Elizabeth (Menhenick) St. Pierre; educated at the Bowdoin School; married George Lewis Ruffin (a lawyer, legislator and judge), in 1858 (died 1886); children: Hubert St. Pierre Ruffin; Florida Yates Ridley; Stanley Ruffin; George Lewis Ruffin; Robert Ruffin (died in infancy).

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1842, the youngest of six children of John and Elizabeth St. Pierre . Her mother came from Cornwall, England; her father, of African, French, and Indian descent, sold new and used clothing and was the founder of the Zion Church in Boston. Josephine attended public schools in Charleston and Salem, and later went to a private school in New York to avoid Boston's segregated school system. In 1855, after the system changed, she returned to Boston and attended the Bowdoin School.

In 1858, 16-year-old Josephine married 21-year-old free black George Lewis Ruffin, with whom she soon sailed to the less racist environs of Liverpool, England. Six months later, however, they returned, and George began working as a barber. They aided the Union Army during the Civil War by recruiting soldiers for the black regiments and serving in the Home Guard. Their work on behalf of the African-American population continued after the war, when Josephine organized the Kansas Relief Association to collect money and clothing for Southern blacks who had migrated to Kansas. George graduated from law school in 1869, and later built his own law practice, served as a state legislator and city council member, and became the first black municipal judge in Boston before his death in 1886. Josephine was a prominent community leader in her own right as an organizer, journalist, club woman, and volunteer. She was the editor of a black newspaper, the weekly Boston Courant, and was a member of the New England Women's Press Association.

Expanding her interests beyond the black community, Ruffin served on the executive board of the Massachusetts Moral Education Association, and was a volunteer visitor for Associated Charities for 11 years. She worked for women's suffrage and associated with reformers such as Julia Ward Howe , Lucy Stone , and Ednah Dow Cheney . She was also a member of several white women's organizations, including the New England Women's Club and the Massachusetts State Federation of Women's Clubs, for which she was a member of the executive board.

In February 1893, Ruffin founded the Woman's Era Club with her daughter, Florida Ridley , and Maria Louise Baldwin , the principal of a local high school. Intended to further the goals of African-American women and all African-Americans, the club, which was open to women of any race, provided scholarships to good students, and initiated many reforms and racial advancements. Ruffin and her daughter also founded the Woman's Era, the club's monthly illustrated magazine that was the first periodical owned, published and managed by black women in the United States.

Ruffin's focus on activist organizations for women provided the inspiration for a national organization of black women; its first national conference was held in Boston at Berkeley Hall in July 1895, under her direction. Ruffin believed that it was in black women's interest to "teach an ignorant and suspicious world that our aims and interests are identical with those of all good aspiring women." Showing that they were dignified and concerned with working toward a better world, black women could break through negative stereotypes.

When the conference led to the founding of the National Federation of Afro-American Women (NFAAW), Ruffin successfully campaigned to have Margaret Murray Washington , wife of Booker T. Washington, as president. In 1896, the NFAAW merged with the Colored Women's League, led by Helen C. Cook , to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), a single strong organization that would further the clubs' mutual objectives of improvement and social reform. Its first president was Mary Church Terrell , and Ruffin, one of seven vice-presidents, remained editor of the Woman's Era, which became the official journal of the nascent organization, until 1900. The magazine was effective in publicizing and promoting the organization's goals, among them suffrage, education, culture, patriotism, and child welfare.

Ruffin became involved in a controversy with the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), which, despite having many members supportive of reform, sought to exclude black women. The GFWC had invited the Woman's Era Club to join, but did not realize it was an organization of black women until Ruffin attended the GFWC's biennial convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was there representing the Woman's Era Club and the New England Women's Press Association. The GFWC president Rebecca Lowe returned the Woman's Era Club dues and asked the club to return its certificate of membership. Ruffin was told that she could not enter the convention as a member of the black Woman's Era Club, but would be allowed to attend as a member of the white New England Women's Press Association.

Ruffin refused to accept these racist conditions. Her stand for civil rights received publicity throughout the nation, and most newspapers supported her. Some state delegations protested and several Massachusetts clubs withdrew from the GFWC, but the organization retained its whites-only policy for several decades. The incident spurred many black women's clubs to develop their own goals and organize various reforms to assist their communities.

Ruffin remained active in civic and charitable work throughout her life. She was one of the 56 charter members of the NAACP, and was a member of many black and white civic organizations. She fully believed that the future would be better for black women. Ruffin worked to further the cause until only weeks before her death from nephritis on March 13, 1924, in her Boston home. Many prominent people, both black and white, attended her funeral, and many organizations mourned her loss.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer, Bayville, New York