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Victoria Earle Matthews

(1861—1907)


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(1861–1907), journalist, short story writer, social reformer, lecturer, and editor.

Victoria Matthews was born Victoria Earle in Fort Valley, Georgia, to the slave Caroline Smith. Caroline fled to New York in order to escape a vicious master, probably Victoria's father. Saving her wages, the mother returned eight years later and won custody of Victoria and her sister and took them to New York around 1873. Though Victoria was an adept student, family crises prompted her to leave school for domestic service. Yet she soon harvested a rich education from her admiring employer's library. At eighteen, after marying William Matthews and bearing a son, Lamartine, she applied her self-enlightenment to a thriving journalistic career, which commenced with work as a “sub” -reporter for publications like the Times, Herald, and Sunday Mercury. A prolific correspondent for African American newspapers, including the Boston Advocate and New York Globe, she became an authorial celebrity.

Matthews's career was driven by a belief in converting her people's internal devastations into brilliant external accomplishments, literary and civic. In her essay “The Value of Race Literature” (1895), she advocated releasing the “suppressed inner lives” of African American women onto the printed page. An author of children's stories, she wrote a mininovel, Aunt Lindy (1893), which counseled against an ex-slavewoman's murder of an ailing former master: By healing him, she heals the diseased soul he fostered in her. Matthews thus repudiated the vengeful African persona of Maurice Thompson's poem “Voodoo Prophecy.”

Matthews, too, espoused causes in her articles, causes that she galvanized into political reform. Noted for her lectures on “The Awakening of the Afro-American Woman,” she founded the Woman's Loyal Union in 1892. In the same year she joined educator Maritcha Lyons in supporting the antilynching crusade of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. And in 1893, she spoke eloquently at Chicago's World Columbian Exposition. Matthews helped found the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1895: occupied the editorial board of its magazine, the Woman's Era; and was instrumental in the federation's merger with the National Colored Women's League into the National Association of Colored Women (1896). In 1898 she edited Black Belt Diamonds, selected speeches of Booker T. Washington.

The death of Matthews's son at sixteen cast her into profound mourning. This time, she transformed her own grief into vigilant social welfare “for other people's boys and girls.” Matthews investigated the so-called employment agencies that were really fronts for the internment of migrating rural “colored” girls into urban prostitution. Establishing the White Rose Industrial Association in 1897, Matthews deployed her own agents to deliver these adolescents to the foundation's home, which instructed them in domestic skills and, through a prodigious library, racial history. The subsidiary sections of the White Rose were eventually unified into the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, one of the founding organizations of the National Urban League. The White Rose thus provided an outlet for Matthews's own inner demons—a means by which her lost son could be reborn in the rescue of female children from sexual exploitation. The White Rose allowed her an active means of avenging both her mother Caroline's trauma as her master's abused object and the historical branding of African American women as sexual possessions.

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Subjects: United States History — Literature.


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