January 5 - A Woman with a Mission

Story topics
Related Story

On January 5, 1898, Alice Ruth Moore in Brooklyn wrote to her fiancé Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., regarding her work at the White Rose Mission, a shelter and school for African Americans in New York City.

I am worn out.  The Christmas tree at our mission is tonight and I was up there in 97th Street until 2:30am last night arranging things, putting up presents, etc.  It takes an hour to get home so you can imagine how jolly I felt at having to get up at 7:00 this morning.  I had a drawing lecture after school from 3:45 to 5:30 and I was so tired I really went to sleep.  I have just finished dinner and am scrawling you this before going up to the festivities.

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 5, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Alice taught in the Brooklyn public school system, but she also volunteered at the mission, leading a kindergarten class and teaching vocational skills to some unruly boys.

Well the boys are the toughest, most god forsaken hoodlums you ever saw, average age 14.  They were inclined to jeer and act horribly.  My patience endured exactly 57 minutes by the clock, when after an unusually violent break on the part of a stalwart young man of fifteen I reached over another boy, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him to the center of the floor.  One hand was full of papers, so I had only one to manipulate his nibs with.  I lectured him in sentences of four or five words, punctuating them with fervent shakes with the one hand, while my knuckles made dents in his medulla oblongata.  Then I assisted him to his seat rather rapidly, and urged him to retain it with a gentle grip on his shoulder that made him wince with delight -- the other hand still holding the papers.  One boy whistled.  The others looked in respectful silence.  The class was dismissed in perfect order.  It's a pity to be brutal, but it must be.

After class one large boy who is just my height asked me, "Say, Miss Moore, do you go to a gymnasium?"

"Yes," I answered cheerily, "and I'm willing to knock you down if you want."  He declined and departed with respect and admiration beaming all over him.

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 12, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

In another letter to Paul, Alice described a heartbreaking home visit she made with the founder of the mission, Victoria Earle Matthews (who was called Dolores).

Good God!  How much misery there is in the world!  After leaving the mission we ran in to see one of our constituents in our neighborhood.  Two of her boys are in my kindergarten and the oldest one -- a boy of ten in my manual training class.  The two rooms were squalid, dirty, miserable, filthy to the last degree, and the entire tenement reeking with odors that made one's stomach instinctively turn over.  She had no coal, but a neighbor had loaned her a handful, so an indifferent fire was sputtering away.  My little boys had had nothing to eat all day -- though they dutifully came in to the mission.  I could not help but smile ironically as I wondered how much good all I was trying to teach them would amount to when it was imparted on an empty stomach.  One baby was nursing at her breast, the other, just beginning to walk was sick and moaning with chicken-pox.  He was a horrible sight, black-covered with foul spots, tears in his baby eyes, gnawing on a dirty crust.  My little pupils crowded around Dolores and me hungrily.  She was about to be dispossessed and would be placed, sick children, furniture and all in the street tomorrow for two months' rent.  The husband would not provide, but beat the children and cursed her.  We asked where he got food.  "Why he goes in a saloon, gets a glass of beer and a free lunch," she answered stolidly.  The sick child seemed to be suffering so I asked her had she bathed it.  She answered yes, but with common soap!  Think of it!  With no oil to heal the sores.  We had barely carfare with us, for it is never safe to carry much around up there, but we ran out, bought some castile soap, Vaseline, a loaf of bread, some meat and a package of oatmeal and took it in to her, with some little cakes for the baby.  The boys hung around eagerly waiting for us to go when they could pounce on the food.

Don't think this is an individual case, or my first.  I've been one year tugging away in the midst of such scenes until I ought to be hardened, but I never see one that something doesn't rise and grip my throat.  When I come back to my dainty little room, and sit down to a well ordered dinner, the food actually chokes me at times, remembering those to whom my necessities would be luxuries.

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 23, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Alice wrote a set of short stories called "The Annals of 'Steenth Street" that were inspired by her experiences at the White Rose Mission.

Dell received an invitation to the great ball of the Firemen's Lodge.  She had never been invited anywhere before, and all 'Steenth Street knew how great an occasion was the annual Firemen's Ball.  Dell's wardrobe was scanty, and they were still in debt to the doctor.  Everyone knows that those who go to the Firemen's Ball are arrayed like unto Solomon, and no makeshift dress will do.

"Guess you'll be goin' to the ball," said Mr. Mott as he sat down to supper that night.

Dell's eyes were red but her voice was steady, as she said bravely, "Nope."

"No?  Why, girl, you're crazy.  Why dese girls in 'Steenth Street would give anything to git an invite to the Firemen's."

"I've got nuttin' to wear."

"Pigeon, did you ever know Dad to trow you down?"

"No, Pop," said Dell.

"Yer ol' dad's got awful responsibilities, Pigeon, awful ones."  He shuddered at the thought of them.  "But yer ol' dad'll never trow you down."

He repeated this assurance as he went out, and Dell felt a great contentment as she went to bed that night.

"The Ball Dress," by Alice Moore Dunbar.  Published in The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Volume 3, edited by Gloria T. Hull.  Oxford University Press (New York, New York).  1988.  Pages 123 - 125.

The work of Victoria Earle Matthews and her mission was often mentioned in religious publications and the mainstream press.

The White Rose Mission is the name given to a few humble rooms where our missionary, Mrs. Matthews, holds women's and children's meetings for the colored people of that vicinity.  She visits among their homes, and they in turn gather about her for sympathy and counsel, and a social hour.  The kindergarten, and sewing and cooking classes, and boy's work with tools are all very simple, and are all carried on with little money and in small space, but the results prove the great need of an industrial center for the teaching of the colored youth of our city.  Mrs. Matthews is not alone in this work at the Mission.  A noble, self-sacrificing band of men and women are helping in every way possible.  The wife of gifted Paul Laurence Dunbar, until her marriage and removal from the city, gave freely all her leisure time to the kindergarten work at the Mission.

"The New York City Mission Monthly," by A. F. Schauffler, D. D.  The New York City Mission and Tract Society (New York, New York).  December 1898.  Page 85.

A colored woman of education and refinement has been for some years experimenting in the line of securing a house of rest where worthy working girls and women can secure protection and relief and possibly an opportunity for employment.  Mrs. Victoria Earle Matthews has had charge of this White Rose Mission, and her success during the past few years has been such that she feels that the time has come for the establishment of an institution of broader scope.  The point is to reach these hundreds and thousands of girls who under a stress of temptation and destitution are now a menace to the community and make them a positive influence for good.  Amid all the various undertakings for philanthropic work we know of none that promises better results.

"Religious," by Teunis S. Hamlin, D. D.  The Independent (New York, New York).  July 13, 1899.  Pages 1905 - 1906.

It has seemed strange that with all the good work started in this city, so little comparatively has been done for the colored people.  Those who have known anything about the crowded districts in which they live, have realized and deplored this fact, although feeling powerless to cope with the many evils existing there.  Fortunately to counteract these influences there are many devoted members of this race who are giving their lives to efforts to uplift their own people.  There are thousands of young people in the neighborhood whose parents are anxious to have them trained, but who cannot afford to send them away to distant schools, being hardly able to provide the bare necessities of life, and the children must go untrained even in the most homely arts of housewifery.  Miss Alice Ruth Moore, a teacher in Grammar School 83, Brooklyn, has charge of the work, assisted by three of the mothers.

"The White Rose Mission."  New York Evangelist (New York, New York).  October 7, 1897.  Page 12.

Mrs. Victoria Earle Matthews is the founder of the White Rose Mission, which was organized to elevate the Afro-American youth of the overcrowded upper east side of New York.  Mrs. Matthews was born a slave in Georgia, but has spent the greater part of her life here.  "In this district, there are about 6,000 Afro-Americans.  I found that this was my field.  All our workers are Afro-Americans and most of them are poor, hard-working women.  None of them receives a cent of pay, but all volunteer their services.  They are faithful and zealous, and this work means much sacrifice of valuable time on their part."

"This is the teacher, Miss Alice Ruth Moore," continued Mrs. Matthews, introducing a graceful young woman, and her eyes twinkled mischievously.  "Or rather she was Miss Moore until a month ago," she added.  "Now she is Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar, wife of the Afro-American poet.  Miss Moore furnished a great deal of the kindergarten material out of her own pocket," volunteered Mrs. Matthews.  "When her fiancé, Mr. Dunbar, saw how her heart was in the work, he gave a reading in a church and netted $35, which he gave to her to use in her work.  She also has charge of the manual training class, which numbers twenty-four boys."

"The White Rose Mission."  The Sun (New York, New York).  April 17, 1898.  Page 5.