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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 577

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This is the grave of George Ruffin and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

George Ruffin was born in 1834 in Richmond to free parents. Josephine St. Pierre was born free in Boston in 1842 to an English father and a mother from Martinique. George’s family moved to Boston in 1853 where they could live in more freedom than in Virginia. Josephine actually was sent to a private school in New York City because her parents could find no integrated schools in Boston, but she came back to Beantown when some integrated schools opened. George and Josephine married in 1858. They headed to England for awhile to escape the nation after Dred Scott.

George and Josephine Ruffin would spend their lives fighting for black rights. They were deeply committed to freeing slaves in the Civil War; everyone knew what the Civil War was about in 1861 except for northern whites and the Ruffins did their part to change that in that dimmer part of the population. They helped recruit black soldiers for the legendary Massachusetts 54th and its follow-up, the 55th. They also worked for the Sanitation Commission to help make conditions better for soldiers in the field. As twice as many soldiers died from disease as in battle, and that ratio was much higher for black soldiers, this was a hugely crucial front in the war. George especially was basically a Republican ward boss in 1864. He had a notebook of black voters and whether they had paid the taxes that allowed them to vote, then getting them to the polls, helping to carry Massachusetts for Lincoln and Boston for Republicans by a huge margin. After the war, Josephine was part of the group to raise money to fund and support black settlers in Kansas seeking to escape the South entirely.

The Ruffins might have been at the peak of Boston black society but that doesn’t mean they had very much money. George became the first African-American to get a law degree from Harvard in 1869, but he had to start his law career by working as a barber on the side, before gaining support in both the black and white communities to get him to Harvard. This wasn’t so easy though. In 1868, conservative white students lobbied to have Ruffin expelled based on the basis of his race. Most of the white students rejected the racists, which actually led them to ask Ruffin if he was going to stay in school despite the objections of “a respectable minority.” Ruffin responded that they should drop out of school if they couldn’t handle going to class with him.

Ruffin was a good lawyer and finally did achieve some financial success. He attended the National Negro Convention a couple of times and served a term in the Massachusetts state legislature in 1870-71. He was the first black person to be on the Boston City Council as well, serving a couple of terms later in the 1870s. In 1872, when the Liberal Republicans nominated Horace Greeley to challenge Grant and the Democrats joined in and made him their nominee too, making a fool of Greeley just before he died, Ruffin fought hard for Grant, noting that the Liberal Republicans were taking aim straight at the heart of black rights, which was true. Ruffin stated that the Liberal Republicans complaining about the “centralization” of power really “means that the power of protecting us against the midnight raids of armed bodies of men, and defending us at the ballot-box, should be taken away from the Federal Government and we and all our deeper and blood-bought rights should be left to the tender mercies of the Kuklux.” Ruffin was ultimately an integrationist–he and Josephine went to a white church and he openly wrote for a day when black churches would be unnecessary and he longed for a day in the future when race did not matter and did not exist, but he certainly did more than almost anyone to fight for black rights in the mid-19th century.

Ruffin also became an ally in the weird political career of Benjamin Butler–who went from supporting John C. Breckinridge in 1860 to helping emancipate slaves in the war to switching back and forth between parties for the rest of his long career. He ran for governor as a Republican in 1871 with Ruffin’s support and didn’t win. They later broke. But when Butler, now a Democrat again, did become governor in 1883, he named Ruffin a municipal court judge as a compromise candidate after the Republicans confirming the job rejected his first candidate. They actually offered Ruffin as the compromise candidate and all Butler really cared about was getting the credit for naming the first black judge in the state. The Arthur administration also named him consul resident for the Dominican Republic. But then he died in 1886, only 51 years old.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin may have been devastated when her husband died, but she had a long ways to go. She was fighting for women’s suffrage from way back and became the first member of the American Women’s Suffrage Association. She had close connections with large numbers of famous suffragists, from Susan B. Anthony to Julia Ward Howe, even as many of them began to abandon black rights in general. When George died, she was financially secure. So she started a newspaper. The Woman’s Era was the nation’s first paper started and run by black women. She was the publisher and editor between 1890 and 1897. The paper was both an anti-racist and feminist publication, demanding rights for black women. She ran it with her daughter Florida, who would have quite a career of her own. The paper often ran stories about racism in Boston, including the story of a young black woman held in virtual slavery for four years and attacking women’s clubs for denying black women the right to membership. She and Florida also organized the Woman’s Era Club, an advocacy group for black women, in 1894. The next year, she organized the National Federation of Afro-American Women and other organizations, working with more famous people today such as Mary Church Terrell.

In 1900, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs met in Milwaukee. Ruffin represented three organizations, one exclusive black. The Southern women who dominated the GFWC decided to segregate their organization, which got huge headlines in the black and women’s communities, but the organization would change its segregation policies. But Ruffin kept fighting and was involved in the creation of the NAACP in 1909-10. She died in 1924.

George and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin are buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other leaders of the 19th century African-American community, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gertrude Bustill Mossell is in Collingdale, Pennsylvania and John Rock is in Everett, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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