Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
August 31, 1842 – March 13, 1924
Notable: Publisher & Activist
Josephine St. Pierre was born into a prominent family in Boston’s small Black Beacon Hill neighborhood. Her mother, Elizabeth Matilda Menhenick, was a White Englishwoman. While her father, John St. Pierre, was from Martinique. He was of French and African heritage and had founded the Boston Zion Church.
As a child, she was raised in an environment that was immersed in the abolitionist cause and championed equality. It’s worth noting that at the time a lot of females were not formally educated. Yet, St. Pierre attended school in Boston and was also sent to Salem as the schools there had been integrated.
At 16-years-old, St. Pierre married George Lewis Ruffin who was the first Black person to graduate from Harvard Law School. He later became Boston’s first Black municipal judge and also served on the City Council. Their marriage produced five children consisting of one daughter and four sons. Unfortunately, one of the boys died in infancy but the other children went on to become successful professionals as adults.
Ruffin continued her education with some time at a finishing school and a few years studying with a private tutor in New York. But, the Civil War began when Ruffin was 18-years-old. She participated in the war effort by helping to recruit Black soldiers for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments and worked for the United States Sanitary Commission. After the war, she contributed to causes and organizations that aimed to address the needs of newly freed Black people in the South.
During the war, Ruffin had become involved with charity work and social justice causes related to the Black community and women’s rights. Her participation in the women’s suffrage movement required working with both Black and White activists and organizations. Moving between these communities she helped to promote the need for women’s rights in general but also the particular issues standing in the way of progress for Black women. Her work on these campaigns and within these organizations brought her into contact with many of the prominent suffragists of the time.
Ruffin’s husband who was eight years her senior died relatively young in 1886 at the age of 52. By this point, Ruffin had been involved with charities and activist organizations for several years. In the 1870s she had become a writer for a weekly Black newspaper and was a member of the New England Women’s Press Association. She became even more active after her husband’s passing, no longer being just a member of organizations but now founding her own.
Four years after her husband’s death, Ruffin co-founded Women’s Era with her daughter Florida. The newspaper was the first of its kind as it was published by and for Black women. Ruffin served as the paper’s publisher but co-edited with her daughter. Together they used the paper to motivate and encourage Black women to become more involved with social justice initiatives with a particular focus on women’s and civil rights.
As a companion to the newspaper, the pair joined with a local school principal, Maria Baldwin, to establish a local “Women’s Era Club”. They later held a convention that was attended by women from clubs across the country. This led to the creation of the National Federation of Afro-Am Women which later merged with the Colored Women’s League of Washington to form the National Association of Colored Women. With the creation of this new organization, Mary Church Terrell became president and Ruffin became the first vice-president.
The women’s club movement was very active at this time but many clubs that had been organized by White women did not accept Black women as members. Ruffin had continued to be active in other social justice and women’s suffrage clubs, becoming the first Black member of a few. But she was mistreated at a large convention for women’s clubs that was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1900.
As a representative of three organizations, Ruffin had bonafide credentials to attend the event. Yet when she arrived, Southern White women who had positions of authority within the organizing body refused to acknowledge her credentials and refused her entry. Some went so far as to attempt to forcefully remove her membership badge. When she was later offered entry she declined based on what had occurred and because some other non-White women had also been turned away. The fiasco would be referred to as the “Ruffin Incident”.
The New Era Club ceased to function in 1903 but Ruffin remained involved with clubs and organizations, helping to co-found the Boston chapter of the NAACP and the League of Women for Community Service. She remained active right up until her death from nephritis at the age of 81-years-old.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ed. 2021. “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. April 5, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Josephine-St-Pierre-Ruffin.
- “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed July 8, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/people/josephine-st-pierre-ruffin.htm.
- “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.” 2020. History of American Women. May 25, 2020. https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2015/06/josephine-st-pierre-ruffin.html.
- Knight, Stephanie. 2007. “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924).” BlackPast.org. January 18, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/ruffin-josephine-st-pierre-1842-1924/.
- “Ruffin, Josephine St. Pierre.” n.d. National Women’s Hall of Fame. Accessed July 8, 2021. https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/josephine-st-pierre-ruffin/.
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