Radicals or Realists: African American Women and the Settlement House Spirit in New York City

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Radicals or Realists: African American Women and the Settlement House Spirit in New York City

In the spring of 1898, Victoria Earle Matthews, the Superintendent of the White Rose Mission, received a letter from Hattie Morehouse, a white teacher at the Baylan Home for Colored Youth in Jacksonville, Florida asking Matthews to meet one of her students who was coming to New York in search of a job. Matthews arrived at the Old Dominion pier at the expected time, but could not find the student who could be identified by a red ribbon in her lapel. Three days later, an extremely upset young woman arrived and told of having been "lured" away by employment agents. Matthews decided that something had to be done to help other female travelers avoid such distressing and demoralizings circumstances. She, therefore, devoted a large part of her settlement house activities to travelers aid work.(2)

This paper will focus on several themes including the role of black women in institution building; the beginning of settlement houses in black communities, with emphasis on boarding facilities for migrant women; the exploitation of black migrant women and the efforts of black and white reformers to change the circumstances. The paper is primarily concerned with two institutions, the White Rose Mission in Harlem and the Lincoln Settlement House in Brooklyn. Both institutions were managed and promoted by black women They were examples of self-help which filled special needs for black women migrating from the South. Blacks began migrating from the South in the 1880s and the movement gained momentum in the 1920s. Between 1880 and 1910 an average of 6,500 blacks left the South for employment in northern cities each year.(3) Many of these were women. Settlement houses like the White Rose Home and the Lincoln Settlement House attempted to deal with the problems created by this explosion in population, especially in providing housing, education, child care, and employment assistance.

Settlement houses for African Americans resembled similar institutions for European immigrants. The founders of black settlement houses displayed the same spirit of social justice which was common to white reformers. Jane Adams Hull House in Chicago and University Settlement in New York City became "spearheads of reform" in the Progressive era.(4) Both white and black reformers focused on practical objectives such as education and child care for working mothers. Settlement houses in general offered classes in reading or English, homemaking, sewing, music, art, and handicrafts. They established community literary clubs and libraries.(5)

Blacks organized their own settlement houses partly because they were discriminated against by white settlement workers and because they wished to establish their own institutions. In a study of blacks and other ethnic groups in New York City, scholars claimed "the Negro middle class contributes very little in money, organization, or involvement, to the solution of Negro social problems." The authors did not emphasize the historical contributions of blacks to the tradition of institution building. African Americans, like other ethnic groups, were strongly motivated to create settlement houses and other institutions for their people. African American women included settlement houses as a vital part of their program of self-help and institution building.(6)

The settlement house concept for blacks in the north began with the White Rose Mission which was founded by Victoria Matthews in 1897. This institution has a long history of social welfare service for African Americans in New York City. During its early years it functioned as a "mission" and social center for women and children in the community. As the number of women migrating to New York City increased, the scope of the Mission broadened. It offered lodging to southern migrant women, helped them adjust to the city, and to develop the skills necessary to survive in an urban environment. …