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.

Women’s club

With others, Florida Ruffin Ridley helped her mother establish the Woman’s Era Club around 1892. Comprised principally of elite black women of the Boston area, the club performed educational work. Its main feature was its division into various committees, such as ways and means, domestic service, philanthropy, temperance, and moral reform. Club members also focused their efforts on women’s suffrage and matters pertaining to the race — particularly anti-lynching activism. As the club’s corresponding secretary, Florida penned a letter in May 1894 to Laura Ormiston Chant, criticizing her for helping to defeat a resolution at the national conference of the Unitarian Church denouncing lynching. She wrote, “[I]n the interest of common humanity, in the interest of justice, for the good name of our country, we solemnly raise our voice against the horrible crimes of lynch law as practiced in the South, and we call upon Christians everywhere to do the same or be branded as sympathizers with the murderers.”

With her mother, Ridley co-founded the Woman’s Era in 1894 — the first monthly journal ever published by and for African American women — and she served as one of its editors. In March 1920, she also co-founded the League of Women for Community Service, Inc. (LWCS). Still around today at 558 Massachusetts Avenue, the LWCS undertakes charitable, civic, educational and social work for the benefit of Boston’s African American community. Florida Ruffin Ridley would later become a noted short story writer and a contributor to the Journal of Negro History. She died at her daughter’s home in Toledo, Ohio, on Feb. 25, 1943.

There weren’t many black schoolteachers employed by the City of Boston in 1890. Of the 1,486 public school teachers in Suffolk County, just three were African American: Elizabeth N. Smith, her younger sister Harriet L. Smith, and Mollie Lewis. Lewis, however, moved to Philadelphia, so that by the year 1891 the number of African American teachers in Boston had decreased to just two.

Miss Hattie

Born in Boston on Feb. 6, 1864, Harriet Louisa Smith — affectionately known by her friends as “Miss Hattie” — was the third African American schoolteacher hired by the city. She graduated from Bowdoin Grammar School in 1879, from Girls’ High School in 1883, and from Boston Normal School in 1886. She provided instruction at the Sharp School from 1889 to 1896 and at Bowdoin Grammar School on Myrtle Street from 1897 to 1916.

Harriet Smith was a member of the Boston Teachers’ Club and the Boston Elementary Teachers’ Club. She also served as assistant secretary of the Bowdoin Grammar School Alumni Association. She died suddenly at her home, 75 Brent Street, Dorchester, on June 20, 1916. She was survived by her older sister, Florence J. Smith — an 1872 graduate of Girls’ High and Normal School and principal of the Birney School in Washington, D.C. — and her older brother, Hamilton Sutton Smith, a dentist, lawyer and photographer who was the second African American to acquire a law degree from Boston University School of Law.