Pioneering black teachers led the way in 1800s

Black women educated generations of students while leading charitable efforts

Anthony W. Neal | 3/1/2018, 10:39 a.m.

Elizabeth N. Smith was the first African American schoolteacher appointed to a racially integrated school in Boston. She was born in Massachusetts in 1846 to Georgiana O. Smith, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and John J. Smith, a freeborn Virginian barber, abolitionist and state legislator. “Lizzie,” as she was called, was a child of rare intellect. She graduated from the Wells School as a City Medal Scholar on June 25, 1864. She is believed to be the first black graduate of Girls’ High and Normal School, having received a diploma on June 28, 1867. Admission requirements at that school were high. Candidates for admission were required to present certificates of character and of qualifications from their last teachers and satisfactorily pass an examination in spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography and history.

From 1869 to 1874, Smith provided special instruction at a primary school on Joy Street in the Phillips School District. In the early 1880s, she taught evening school in the wardroom of what was formerly Phillips Grammar School — an old schoolhouse in the West End on the corner of Anderson and Pinkney streets. That red brick building would later house the Sharp School.

In addition to teaching, Smith performed charitable work as a member of several black women’s organizations. She served as secretary of the Colored Women’s Refugee Aid Society. Founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin in April 1879, the aid society sent clothing, shoes and other needed supplies to poor black refugees fleeing the post-Reconstruction South. Smith also served as an officer of the Female Benevolent Firm (FBF) and as treasurer of its benevolent fund. Formed in 1852, the FBF in the late 19th century was the second oldest charitable club comprising exclusively black women. The schoolteacher was vice president of Ruth Circle of the King’s Daughters and Sons as well — another black women’s club in Boston — and a member of the Church of the Advent.

Elizabeth Smith resumed teaching at the Sharp School from 1894 until 1899, when failing health forced her to retire. Though of a quiet and gentle disposition, she had a wide circle of friends and was beloved by her students. On Dec. 18, 1899, she died of pulmonary tuberculosis at 45 Wellesley Park in Dorchester.

Florida Ruffin Ridley was the second African American schoolteacher hired by the City of Boston. The only daughter of journalist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Judge George Lewis Ruffin, she was born Amelia Yates Ruffin on Jan. 29, 1861. After graduating from Bowdoin Grammar School in 1875 and from Girls’ High School in 1878, Ruffin acquired a diploma from Boston Normal School on June 28, 1880, entitling her to teach in the grammar, primary and evening elementary schools. The Boston School Board appointed her special assistant teacher for the Phillips School District on Oct. 12, 1880. It named her an “instructor on probation” on Oct. 25, 1881, and confirmed her as an instructor on Jan. 23, 1883. Ruffin taught at the Grant School, a primary school on Phillips Street, until 1888, when she retired from the teaching profession and married tailor Ulysses Archibald Ridley Jr.