Last updated: January 16, 2023
While Florida Ruffin Ridley followed in the footsteps of her mother, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, she paved her own way as a writer, activist, and community leader.
Born in 1861, Florida Ruffin grew up in a Beacon Hill household of respected leaders in the Black community. Her father, George Ruffin, established himself as one of the first Black judges in Massachusetts, eventually serving as Charlestown Municipal Court Judge. Josephine Ruffin contributed to the work of many organizations in the years leading to and during the U.S. Civil War before becoming an editor and clubwoman.1
Florida Ruffin attended Boston Public Schools and eventually graduated from Boston Teachers College in the early 1880s.2 Along with educator Maria Baldwin, Florida Ruffin became one of the first Black women teachers in the greater Boston area.3 Her professional teaching career ended shortly after she married Boston tailor Ulysses A. Ridley in 1888.4
In the 1890s, Florida Ruffin Ridley joined her mother in women’s club work. She helped establish the Woman’s Era Club, a Black women’s club that focused on social activism and community uplift. In the first meeting of the club, Ridley spoke of the club’s mission as its corresponding secretary:
It cannot but be admitted that we, as a race, have too frequently limited ourselves to this field with the result of contacting our vision, enfeebling our impulses and weakening out powers. We the women of the Women’s Era Club enter the field to work hand in hand with women, generally for humanity and humanity’s interests.5
In addition to working together on the club, Florida Ridley and Josephine Ruffin also edited and published the nationally recognized The Woman’s Era, the first publication produced by and for Black women. Using their paper to reach other Black clubwomen, Ruffin and Ridley organized the 1895 First National Conference of Colored Women of America. Ridley served as corresponding secretary of the Conference. Through this work, she helped establish the National Federation of Afro-American Women and later the National Association of Colored Women.6
Moving to Brookline in the mid-1890s, Florida Ridley continued her involvement in community and activist work in the 1900s. Most notably, she participated in the local anti-lynching and women’s suffrage movements. Speaking to the Brookline Woman Suffrage Association in 1897, Ridley said of women’s suffrage, "The suffrage question is like so many other so-called 'questions'--no question at all if faced in its nakedness."7
Florida Ridley also supported the education and uplift of the Black community. She served on the council of the Robert Gould Shaw House, a community center and settlement house, during its foundational years. Joining other Black women community leaders, Ridley helped form the local Soldiers’ Comfort Unit, which became the League of Women for Community Service in 1919.8
In her later years, many recognized Florida Ridley as a talented writer and editor. She wrote short stories, contributed to the Journal of Negro History, and participated in several literary, historical, and intellectual clubs.9 Through her work, Ridley remembered and recognized the contributions of Black Americans past and present.10 As President of the Society of the Descendants of Early New England Negroes, Ridley wrote in a 1929 editorial:
[The society’s] first purpose is to supply what have been called "Some Missing Pages in American History," to present the black men of New England who fought in the French and Indian wars, who mingled with the white farmers at Lexington to oppose the British, who fought all through the Revolution...not as ‘slaves’ (although they had been brought to America in chains) but as men, who worked, fought, and died not only to obtain their own liberty, but for the liberty of the Colonies also.11
Ridley moved to Toledo, Ohio to live with her daughter in her final years. She died in February 1943.
- "Mrs Florida Ridley Dies in Toledo, O.," Boston Chronicle, February 27, 1943; Verner D. Mitchell and Cynthia Davis, Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 89.
- Sources are unclear regarding Ridley's graduation date and teaching start date. According to records in the "Teacher Qualifications Records and Index" at Boston City Archives, Ridley served as a "special assistant" in the Phillips District starting in 1880 (Boston School Committee Records confirm she worked at the Grant School on Phillips Street). It is unclear whether she was still pursuing her official teaching certification at this time. The records list her as "confirmed" in January 1883.
- "Brookline Elementary School Is Renamed For Black Activist Florida Ruffin Ridley," WBUR, January 22, 2021. Accessed January 2021. https://www.wbur.org/edify/2021/01/22/brookline-devotion-coolidge-corner-florida-ruffin-ridley-school-name.
- Until 1953, the city of Boston barred married women from teaching, see "Meet Florida Ruffin Ridley, Renaissance Woman," City of Boston, Accessed February, 2021, https://www.boston.gov/news/meet-florida-ruffin-ridley-renaissance-woman; "Ridley-Ruffin," Boston Globe, October 15, 1888; "Mrs. Ridley Dies, Writer, Educator," Boston Herald, February 26 1943; "Mrs Florida Ridley Dies in Toledo, O.," Boston Chronicle, February 27, 1943; Mitchell and Davis, Literary Sisters, 89.
- "Boston," The Woman's Era 1, no. 1 (March 24, 1894).
- "Mrs. Ridley Dies, Writer, Educator," Boston Herald, February 26, 1943; "Historical Records of the Conventions of 1895-96 of the Colored Women of America, 1902," Wells, Ida B. Papers, [Box #9, Folder #6], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
- "Tyranny of Small Things," The Woman's Journal, June 26, 1897; "Anti-Lynchers in Boston," The New York Times, May 21, 1899.
- "Mrs. Ridley Dies, Writer, Educator," Boston Herald, February 26 1943; "Mrs Florida Ridley Dies in Toledo, O.," Boston Chronicle February 27, 1943; Kathleen Weiler, Maria Baldwin’s Worlds: A Story of Black New England and the Fight for Racial Justice (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019) 141, 164.
- "Mrs. Ridley Dies, Writer, Educator" Boston Herald, February 26, 1943; "Mrs Florida Ridley Dies in Toledo, O.," Boston Chronicle, February 27, 1943.
- Mitchell and Davis, Literary Sisters, 89-90.
- "Early New England Negroes," Boston Herald, December 29, 1929.