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The White Rose Home For Colored Working Girls was founded in 1897, in New York City. It later became known as the White Rose Mission or the White Rose Industrial Association. The organization was founded by Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond Lyons. It was located in Manhattan’s upper west side in an area known as San Juan Hill, offering shelter, food, domestic training, and job placement for black women relocating to the area from the West Indies and southern, United States.
Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond were deeply concerned about the challenging conditions for young black women who came to New York seeking a better life. The White Rose Mission and its volunteers would meet female travelers as they arrived in town and offer them assistance. These women were vulnerable to exploitation and many fell prey to employment scams and other types of coercion or abusive treatment.
White Rose founder, Victoria Earle Matthews was a civic leader and social reformer. Born in 1861, Earle was enslaved in Fort Valley, Georgia. Her father was believed to be the plantation owner. Her mother fled the plantation during the civil war but returned eight years later, and re-gained custody of Matthews and her siblings. The family then relocated to New York City. She entered the public school system and excelled in her classes but eventually had to leave school and begin working to help support her family. She continued to educate herself by studying books from the library of her employer. At the age of 18, in 1879, she married William Matthews. The couple had one son, Lamartine. Following the birth of her son, she embarked on a journalistic career, working as a reporter for several newspapers. Matthew’s writing focused on advocacy and uplift of the black community.
She was also active in the suffragist movement and other civic engagement activities, founding the Women’s Loyal Union in 1892 as well as supporting fellow journalist and civic leader, Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her anti-lynching campaign. Matthews also helped to found the National Federation of African American Women, which eventually merged with the National Colored Women’s League and the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Matthews served as the first national organizer of the combined organizations from 1897 to 1899.
Tragedy struck Matthew’s life when her son died at the age of 16. His death sent Matthews into a deep period of mourning. It was after his death that the White Rose Mission was founded. It was a Christian organization that served as a community center, shelter, and employment training center. Before launching the organization, Matthews conducted detailed research into working environments experienced by young black women. As a fair-skinned woman, Matthews often passed as a white woman to get information on various exploitation schemes targeted at black women. She noted that for, “the young and unfriended (women) of other races, there were all sorts of institutions” but for black women and girls, “there was nothing”.
Matthews combined efforts with Maritcha Remond Lyons and activist and writer, Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson, and other committed volunteers to serve black women and girls through the White Rose Mission. The mission offered classes on housekeeping, cooking, sewing, laundering, and other domestic skills with the goal of preparing women for domestic service in middle-class homes. Matthews and other volunteers would station themselves at piers, docks, and train stations to meet women as they arrived in town.
Services eventually expanded at the mission offering social services and enrichment opportunities unavailable to the black community at that time. The White Rose Mission was first located at 217 East 86th Street and then moved to 262 West 136th Street in 1918 where it operated until it closed operations in 1984. Women staying at the White Rose Mission were asked to pay $1.25 per week to help cover expenses. The White Rose Mission also offered a “membership” for $1.00 for participation in social activities such as dances, a literary club, lectures, and other community gatherings. The White Rose Mission furnished and maintained a library of books focused on the history and achievements of African and African American individuals. At the time it was regarded as one of the most important early collections of works about black life and culture.
Matthews contracted tuberculosis in the early 1900’s which caused her to limit her activities. She died at the age of 46 in 1907. A life cut short, Matthews triumphed over many obstacles to become a powerful, activist, author, advocate, and educator. Matthews and the other women who supported The White Rose Mission were true trailblazers; providing services at a time when social programs and supports were mostly non-existent for black women and girls. The White Rose Mission continued in its mission of serving black women for many decades, finally closing in 1984; nearly 90 years after its founding.
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