The latter half of the 19th century was a time of great change in the United States. The country was in great flux as different populations of people worked to carve out space for themselves in a national as well as global context. Out of this great flux, Black women stormed through the barriers of racism and sexism with power, grace and distinction. One of most important instruments in this effort to forge ahead, were self-help clubs and organizations. Discussed briefly the last couple of installments, the Black Women’s Club Movement was one of the most progressive and impactful movements in US history. Through the many clubs that were formed during this era, Black women attacked issues of racism, sexism, poverty, education, economics and socio-political empowerment simultaneously. One of the most important figures in this movement is Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a woman who had her finger on the pulse of postbellum American society.
Ruffin was born in Boston, Massachusetts to John St. Pierre and Elizabeth Mathilda Menhenick in 1834. In Boston as a youth, Ruffin lived and attended school in Salem and Charlestown which at the time were segregated parts of Boston. It is true that the North was not as immersed in the slavocracy as the South was, but that did not mean that white people of those areas were immune to racial bigotry and hatred. Given this, Ruffin’s parents were not willing to allow their children to suffer the system of segregation, so they sent their daughter to New York City to complete her education. Segregation in Northern schools depended largely on where a person was, New York for instance was more liberal than Boston, though they are both Northern cities. However, in Boston around 1855, there was a movement led by African Americans in the city to have public schools desegregated. This movement did have a measure of success, in that by the end of the year public schools in Boston were desegregated for Black children. As a result, Ruffin moved back to Boston to attend and complete her education at the Bowdain School.
By modern standards, Ruffin married at a young age - 16 - however, her and her husband, George Lewis Ruffin were very active in Boston City politics. Where Josephine and her husband were most active and impactful was in the struggle against the institution of slavery. In particular, the Ruffins were strong advocates of Black Union soldiers, particularly for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. As well, after the war, they helped displaced African Americans coming out of the South’s slavocracy to get settled in their new lives working with the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association. In addition, collectively the Ruffins were very impactful during and after the Civil War in being tireless and uncompromising advocates for African American Union soldiers and new Freedmen. Where Josephine was most impactful was through her involvement in the Women’s Suffrage and Black Women’s Club Movement. To elaborate, in 1869, Ruffin worked with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone to development the American Women’s Suffrage Association. As a talented writer Ruffin also joined the New England Women’s Press Association where she was able write about issues that impacted both African Americans and women. In 1894 she organized a Black Women’s advocacy group called the Women’s Era Club with her daughter Florida Riley. And the following year she organization the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the first Conference of the Colored Women of America in her home city of Boston.
Though religion had its place, the Black Women’s Club Movement was not an exclusively religious movement, however it grew out of self-help groups that were many times church or faith based. In particular, Protestant Christianity, was a critical element of most community groups and organizations of the late 19th century. But the movement in general was not meant to simply be religious based, the focus instead was on the collective efforts from people of diverse back grounds. Meaning, regardless of the religious background, color or gender of those involved, the Black Women’s Club Movement understood its struggle as important for development of humanity in a very general and collective sense. Ruffing elaborates: “Our women’s movement is woman’s movement in that it is led and directed by women for the good of women and men, for the benefit of all humanity, which is more than any one branch or section of it. We want, we ask the active interest of our men, and, too, we are not drawing the color line; we are women, American women, as intensely interested in all that pertains to us as such as all other American women: we are not alienating or withdrawing, we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and cordially inviting and welcoming any others to join us.” The struggle for freedom was/is a struggle for all Americans, and the unique perspective of Black women was/is critically important as they have been at the bottom of American society.
To this point Ruffin has often been overlooked in this conversation because she worked very closely with white women, a group that has historically been at the center of the oppression of African American people. To be clear, this critique is not unfounded, white women often paraded Black women as representatives of their movements, but ignored the problems that were unique to the Black community. Moreover, white women refused to acknowledge and address the problem of white men terrorizing Black communities to protect white womanhood. White supremacy’s greatest catalyst has always been and remains the defense white women from the scourge of Black men. However, Ruffin, perhaps to her detriment as a community leader, worked to bring communities together, without addressing the historical inequities. She states: “We need to feel the cheer and inspiration of meeting each other, we need to gain the courage and fresh life that comes from the mingling of congenial souls, of those working for the same ends.” It must be said, that her ideals in this regard were noble. But the critique of her approach also has merit. White women, have historically had the horrendous habit of weaponizing their whiteness, and if our communities are to find any semblance of peace and cohesion, this will have to be addressed. Nevertheless, Ruffin is not wrong in attempting to find common ground for which opposing communities could come to the same table to address the country’s social ills. In this, our struggle continues.
 Miletsky, Zebulon Vance. “Before Busing: Boston’s Long Movement for Civil Rights and the Legacy of Jim Crow in the “Cradle of Liberty”.” Journal of Urban History 43, no. 2 (2017): 207.
 Darryl Lyman. (2005). "Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin". Great African-American Women (third ed.). Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Company. pp. 196–197. Holden, Teresa Blue. “Earnest women can do anything”: The public career of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, 1842–1904. Saint Louis University, 2005.
 Verner Mitchell and Cynthia Davis. Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press. (2011), 88-90.
 State House Women's Leadership Project (2008). "Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin". Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
 Black Past. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/kansas-freedmans-relief-association-1879-1881/. Accessed October 2019. “In response to the mass exodus from the south in 1879 and 1880, Kansas Governor and Quaker John St. John established the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association (KFRA). The Association was created in 1879 to “aid destitute freedmen, refugees and immigrants” who were migrating to Kansas.” Accessed October 2019.
 Black Past. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/ruffin-josephine-st-pierre-1842-1924/. Accessed October 2019. “During the civil war, the Ruffins were involved in various charity works, civil rights causes, and Mrs. Ruffin, especially, was involved in the women’s suffrage movement where she worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
 Anthony W. Neal. “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin: A Pioneer in the Black Women’s Club Movement. The Bay State Banner. (2016).
 Black Past. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1895-josephine-st-pierre-ruffin-address-first-national-conference-colored-women/. Accessed October 2019.
 Gerda Lerner. "Early community work of Black club women." The Journal of Negro History 59, no. 2 (1974): 158-167.
 AZ Quotes. https://www.azquotes.com/author/24470-Josephine_St_Pierre_Ruffin. Accessed October 2019.