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Pioneering black teachers led the way in 1800s

Black women educated generations of students while leading charitable efforts

Anthony W. Neal
A.C. Thompson, User role test

Elizabeth N. Smith was the first African American schoolteacher appointed to a racially integrated school in Boston. She was born in Massachusetts in 1846 to Georgiana O. Smith, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and John J. Smith, a freeborn Virginian barber, abolitionist and state legislator. “Lizzie,” as she was called, was a child of rare intellect. She graduated from the Wells School as a City Medal Scholar on June 25, 1864. She is believed to be the first black graduate of Girls’ High and Normal School, having received a diploma on June 28, 1867. Admission requirements at that school were high. Candidates for admission were required to present certificates of character and of qualifications from their last teachers and satisfactorily pass an examination in spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography and history.

From 1869 to 1874, Smith provided special instruction at a primary school on Joy Street in the Phillips School District. In the early 1880s, she taught evening school in the wardroom of what was formerly Phillips Grammar School — an old schoolhouse in the West End on the corner of Anderson and Pinkney streets. That red brick building would later house the Sharp School.

In addition to teaching, Smith performed charitable work as a member of several black women’s organizations. She served as secretary of the Colored Women’s Refugee Aid Society. Founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin in April 1879, the aid society sent clothing, shoes and other needed supplies to poor black refugees fleeing the post-Reconstruction South. Smith also served as an officer of the Female Benevolent Firm (FBF) and as treasurer of its benevolent fund. Formed in 1852, the FBF in the late 19th century was the second oldest charitable club comprising exclusively black women. The schoolteacher was vice president of Ruth Circle of the King’s Daughters and Sons as well — another black women’s club in Boston — and a member of the Church of the Advent.

Elizabeth Smith resumed teaching at the Sharp School from 1894 until 1899, when failing health forced her to retire. Though of a quiet and gentle disposition, she had a wide circle of friends and was beloved by her students. On Dec. 18, 1899, she died of pulmonary tuberculosis at 45 Wellesley Park in Dorchester.

Florida Ruffin Ridley was the second African American schoolteacher hired by the City of Boston. The only daughter of journalist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Judge George Lewis Ruffin, she was born Amelia Yates Ruffin on Jan. 29, 1861. After graduating from Bowdoin Grammar School in 1875 and from Girls’ High School in 1878, Ruffin acquired a diploma from Boston Normal School on June 28, 1880, entitling her to teach in the grammar, primary and evening elementary schools. The Boston School Board appointed her special assistant teacher for the Phillips School District on Oct. 12, 1880. It named her an “instructor on probation” on Oct. 25, 1881, and confirmed her as an instructor on Jan. 23, 1883. Ruffin taught at the Grant School, a primary school on Phillips Street, until 1888, when she retired from the teaching profession and married tailor Ulysses Archibald Ridley Jr.

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.