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White Rose Mission: the history of NYC’s first settlement house for young black women

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The White Rose Mission was the first of its kind to serve the city’s young African-American population

The building that would house White Rose Mission from 1918 to 1984, at center
Christopher Bride/PropertyShark

New York City has always been a beacon for those searching for opportunity and the promise of freedom. But many immigrants faced extraordinary hardships upon arriving in the city, leading to the founding of organizations that would provide them with necessary support and protection.

One such organization was the White Rose Mission (also known as the White Rose Home for Colored Working Girls and the White Rose Industrial Association), a settlement house established in 1897 on the Upper East Side to aid young African-American women who had recently arrived to the city. The mission played a pivotal role in the lives of these women (and their families) until its closing in 1984, and it would not have existed—or succeeded—without its founder, Victoria Earle Matthews. In honor of International Women’s Day, this is her story.

Matthews was born into slavery in 1861 in Fort Valley, Georgia. Her mother fled to New York shortly after her birth, leaving behind Victoria and her older sister. Eight years later, she returned to seek custody of the girls and relocate them to New York. There, Victoria enrolled in public school, but despite a natural aptitude for academics, she was forced to cease her education to obtain a job to support her family.

Victoria Earle Matthews in 1903
NYPL Digital Collections

She entered into domestic servitude—where she would learn the skills she would later teach at the mission—but her intelligence and desire to learn would not be dampened. In fact, the owner of the house recognized her intelligence and ability and permitted her to use his private library.

In 1879, she married William E. Matthews, a coachman, and one year later, they welcomed a son, Lamartine. Within a few years, Matthews established herself as a fiction writer and journalist, writing for daily newspapers and the national black press. She also became a suffragist and fierce advocate for women’s rights, active in the newly formed Woman’s Loyal Union and the National Association of Colored Women. Yet just as she was making a name for herself, personal tragedy struck: Her son passed away in 1895 at the age of 16. Although grief-stricken, she chose to channel those emotions into efforts to help the less fortunate, especially young people—thus, the birth of the White Rose Mission.

Prior to the opening of the mission, Matthews often observed the treatment of young African-American women who had recently arrived in New York City. Many of them hailed from the southern United States and the West Indies, and without guidance and direction, they were often susceptible to poor treatment from con artists, unscrupulous employment agencies, and others.

The decision to open a settlement house for these women arose out of necessity. According to Matthews, for “the young and unfriended [women] of other races, there are all sorts of institutions,” but for black girls and women, “there is nothing.”

As a result, one of the first initiatives of the mission was to organize volunteers to go to Manhattan’s docks, piers, and railway stations and protect these women from such undesirable forces. According to Steve Kramer’s essay on the topic, Matthews insisted that these young women “were transformed from hopeful migrants in search of a better life to captivity in ‘a perfect network of moral degradation for the unknowingly unfortunate who may happen to fall into its toils.’”

A newspaper article about Victoria Earle Matthews circa 1894
Wikimedia Commons

In addition to offering food and shelter, the mission focused on job placement; it offered instruction on basic housekeeping duties such as cooking, sewing, serving, and laundering. Mission volunteers (including its founders) also carried out home visits to instruct women on preparing healthy meals and assisting with laundry work. The mission provided lectures on a variety of topics, ranging from wood-working to child-rearing to classes on “race history” and literature. With a focus on black history and work by African-American writers, students were exposed to the works of renowned poets like Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The mission had three locations within its first five years of existence, but due to tenuous financial circumstances, procuring a permanent venue was a challenge. In 1902, it finally found a home on East 86th Street, which provided lodging (at $1.25 per week, per guest) and offered enhanced cooking facilities. The house also enabled the mission to expand its domestic training and job placement programs. The mission began to charge one dollar for annual membership, which granted members access to such social events as dances and card clubs.

Unfortunately, after she contracted tuberculosis in the early 1900s, Matthews was forced to limit her activities. Although she spent ample time at health resorts and sanitariums to treat the disease, she died in 1907 at age 46. But the mission would continue for decades to come: In 1918, it relocated to 136th Street in Harlem, and it closed its doors in 1984.

Although her life was brief, Victoria Earle Matthews defied overwhelming odds and became a prolific author, activist, and teacher. And at a time when social programs did not exist to help disenfranchised women, she created an organization that would endure for nearly 90 years, serving as the pioneer for other black social programs. The white rose—a symbol of hope and new beginnings—is a fitting namesake for an outstanding, pivotal organization founded by a true trailblazer.