My House is on Fire
January 28, 1902 — Conference on “The Redemption of Our City,” The Federation of Churches, New York City
I know it is a good deal to ask one moment for, but I am just like somebody whose house is on fire. I cannot put it out myself, and I know if others knew it was on fire there would be plenty of hands ready to make a bucket brigade and put my fire out. I do not want to take more than two or three minutes, for it means much to me to be somewhere else.
You will allow me, Mr. Chairman, to say that if we had got together those whom I represent, if we had got together to elect somebody to tell our story, the Italian whose name I fear to pronounce, and the last speaker have told our story so well, that I wanted to get up and let you all know that you listened to our story when you heard them speak. Your maps show that you, the American people, do not count for much in this city. I humbly represent that other side. I do not want to make a special plea for my work, but I want to let you know that my work, if properly developed, would mean very much to my people. When I speak of the colored people, I speak of people of whom I have my maternal origin. I speak of my brother, or my sister. There is no one so black that is not akin to me. For five years a few colored women in this city, without anything behind them, have been working on the theory that our women need something in their lives for better development in this city. Those who came from the South met with all sorts of things which the public knows nothing about generally. We women said, “There is something wrong. We are not the most immoral people in the world. Let us get together. Let the churches go on evangelizing; let the ministers hold prayer-meetings and all that. Let us women get together.” We went together into a very congested black district, known to the police as one of the worst in the city. We started a work on Second avenue, a work we called a mission. We did not know what we were going to do, but we gave our hearts and lives to it. We wanted to establish something that would create public sentiment in favor of honest, moral working girls and women. We wanted to help the one who is not lost, to keep her from being lost. We wanted to fit the colored girl, with no personal appearance, with no friends, with no position; we wanted to be able to take that girl and show her how to make a success of her life in this city, and be a good, honest, pure girl, and to make her know that if she were, she was entitled to the greatest honor. We struggled and told people what we wanted to do, and worked, and trained girls to look after young children and to do various things. We had kitchen gardens, cooking classes, neighborhood meetings for what you call social development work. In one year we had 482 meetings, with an attendance of 6,901. Those figures perhaps mean nothing to you; but in a little tenement house, with ten colored women, who did not have a dollar behind them, in five years’ time we had paid our expenses, saved $300, and had won public sentiment sufficiently to place us in a house where we can ask girls to come to us. We have opened a working girls’ home. Many rejected us because we could not say we were trained workers.
We say to you, “Oh, help us in this work. We cannot do it all.” My house, my colored house, if you will allow that expression, is on fire. We need a bucket brigade all over this city; the colored women need some help on these lines.
Source: Matthews, Victoria Earle, “The Redemption of Our City — Colored,” Federation of Churches and Christian Organizations in New York City,” 1:8 (July 1902), pp. 57-58.