- Victoria Earle Matthews’s Short Stories
“There is no one so black that is not akin to me,” Victoria Earle Matthews proclaimed at a conference organized by the Federation of Churches and Christian Organizations in New York City (“Mrs. Virginia Matthews” 57). Matthews, who could pass as white because of her racially indeterminate appearance, lived by these words in her work as an African American clubwoman and social reformer. This affirmation of black identity is also key in her fiction. “Eugenie’s Mistake: A Story” (1892) and “Zelika—A Story” (1892), both reprinted here, are part of the body of fiction by African American women writers and activists written during the 1880s and 1890s that explicitly takes up the stories of light-skinned black women, including those who often passed unknowingly.1 Like many of her fellow authors, Matthews chooses the South as the locale for her stories and places them in the recent past, either when slavery is still a reality or when the legacies of miscegenation and segregation still loom large. The feelings of kinship and pride in black heritage expressed in Matthews’s quotation above drive these stories. Both “Eugenie’s Mistake” and “Zelika” are remarkable for their deft representation of racially indeterminate characters. They are also notable for the clear turn the stories take away from whiteness as a cultural ideal and toward blackness as a viable, preferable identity, and toward a confidently expressed desire for dark-skinned spouses as equal marriage partners.
Matthews’s biography resembles many life stories of African American clubwomen who came of age in the years after the Civil War. Born into slavery on 27 May 1861 in Fort Valley, Georgia, Matthews was one of nine children. Caroline Smith, Matthews’s mother and a slave herself, escaped to New York shortly after her daughter’s birth, returned after emancipation, and obtained custody of [End Page 157] several of her children. While the specific dates of these events remain vague, Matthews experienced slavery briefly before she relocated north with her family, most likely around 1869. After several years in Virginia, the family settled in New York City in 1873.2 Economic hardship marked her life there, compelling her to work to support her family from a young age while at the same time continuously educating herself. In fact, as almost all contemporary biographical sketches of her emphasize, Matthews’s thirst for education and reading was remarkable. Her friend Frances Keyser explained in her March 1907 obituary for Matthews in the New York Age that Matthews’s brief stint in public schools “by no means gives an adequate idea of the education of the woman[,] … being one of the best read women in the country” (6). Announcing her participation as the “only colored woman” speaker at the 1897 San Francisco Christian Endeavor convention, the San Francisco Call quotes Bishop Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Zion Church, who proclaimed Matthews “the ablest writer among our race. There is no one equal to her” (“Mrs. Victoria Earle Matthews” 3). Similar commendations of her effectiveness as a social justice advocate abound. A New York Sun article from April 1898 aptly captured Matthews’s multifaceted activism, describing her as “a Salvation Army field officer, a College Settlement worker, a missionary, a teacher, a preacher, a Sister of Mercy, all in one” (“White Rose Mission” 5). As these quotations indicate, superlative praise for Matthews’s skills as writer and advocate of the race was the norm rather than the exception.
Matthews’s achievements as a premier African American clubwoman and public intellectual cast an impressively long shadow. Shortly after her death in 1907, the New York Age reported the formation of a new charitable club in Brooklyn named the “Victoria Earle Matthews Club” (“Ladies Form a Club” 7). To this day, the Northeastern Federation of Women Clubs, Inc. & Youth Affiliates lists a Victoria Earle Matthews Scholarship Fund (“About”). Matthews even makes an appearance in Stefanie Pintoff’s 2011 historical crime novel Secret of the White Rose. Matthews’s White Rose Mission—a New York City settlement home she established in 1897 to provide young African American women with a safe haven and the opportunity to...