As a married woman, Matthews became involved in women's clubs and social work, at a time when the settlement movement started in Great Britain in 1884 was influencing American social work in major cities. In 1897 Matthews founded the White Rose Industrial Home for Working Class Negro Girls, also known as the White Rose Mission, a settlement house for young black women, to provide them with safe housing, as well as education, and life and job skills.
Victoria Earle was born into slavery in 1861 in Fort Valley, Georgia. Shortly after she was born, her mother Caroline Smith ran away from her master, leaving Victoria and her older sister. Her mother reached New York, where she planned to earn enough money to purchase her freedom and that of her daughters. In 1869, Smith returned to Georgia to reunite with her daughters and seek custody of them. She was the first black woman to be recognized in Georgia's court system. Smith and her daughters returned to New York City.
Brown (1988) describes the young Victoria Earle as “gentle, respectful to elders, affectionate and most helpful to all who seemed to need her services.” (p. 208) In New York, she attended public school but had to withdraw to help support her family. Earle became a domestic servant and found that the home she worked in had a full library. The owner discovered Earle reading but gave her permission to do so when she had time. Earle worked harder to finish tasks in order to read and learn.
On October 22, 1879 at age eighteen, Victoria Smith married William E. Matthews, a coachman, in New York City. They had one son, Lamartine, who died on September 19, 1895 at the age of fifteen.
Matthews started writing and working to establish a career as a journalist and fiction writer. At the same time, she became increasingly interested in politics and issues affecting blacks. She focused on promoting a consciousness of the Negro struggle. She wrote short stories, such as "Aunt Lindy", which told of forgiveness and reconciliation during the Post-Civil War years. She also produced a stage play that explored the idea of miscegenation. She and her family clearly had European ancestry, so this was a personal topic, as well as one that affected many African-American families whose women had been used sexually by white men over generations.
In the early 1890s, Matthews became more involved in the African-American political and social circles. On October 5, 1892, Victoria Earle Matthews and educator and activist, Maritcha Remond Lyons, organized a testimonial dinner in New York’s Lyric Hall for Ida B. Wells and her anti-lynching campaign which led to the founding of the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn. It was a time of the rise of fraternal and women's organizations, and Matthews served as the first president of the Woman's Loyal Union (WLU) and . The WLU was a civil rights organization that worked against racial discrimination and supported the anti-lynching crusade of the journalist Ida B. Wells . Matthews served as the Chairman of the Executive Board in 1896 of the National Association of Colored Women. She frequently spoke on the issues of the times. She was best known for her speeches “The Value of Race Literature” and “The Role of Afro-American Women”; both were rooted in the philosophy of race pride and self-worth.
After her 16-year-old son died, Matthews began to concentrate on helping young people of his age. She returned to the South, having read about the continuing need for education for blacks. In the state of Alabama, she began looking into what was being done for people of color. Eventually she became involved in settlement work, started by Progressive women in industrial cities such as Chicago and New York, which were accepting tens of thousands of European immigrants, as well as many migrants from the rural South. A minister persuaded her to return to New York.
Matthews began to visit individuals and families where the need seemed great. She went from house to house providing practical services, such as helping an over-burdened mother prepare a meal, or do laundry. Kramer (2006) quoted her as saying, “you cannot do anything with these people unless you talk plainly to them and are practical.” (p. 249). Matthews learned that life for African Americans was difficult and plagued with “limited economic opportunities, inadequate housing, poverty, prejudice, and racially motivated violence.”
At this time, thousands of young blacks were arriving in New York as part of the Great Migration, in hopes of finding better work and opportunities than in the Jim Crow South. Matthews thought that young women needed a safe place to stay while they learned job skills to allow them to work.
Of mixed race, she had considerable European heritage; her fair skin and appearance, combined with her education, this enabled her to gain preferential treatment. She investigated business practices among both whites and blacks during this time period. With the initial help of Winthrop Phelps, a white philanthropist who offered a flat in an apartment house he owned, on February 11, 1897, they opened a place where colored girls could go for training in domestic work. Matthews arranged for them to learn to sew, to make dresses and to prepare for service in society.
According to Kramer (2006), Matthews also “envisioned daily kindergarten and manual training for boys with lectures in regard to domestic services” (p. 248). Matthews valued education and made it part of the programs she offered. Kramer (2006) wrote the “White Rose Mission stressed the training of African American girls in the principles of practical self-help and right-living.” (p. 248). In addition to life skills in math, reading and writing, Matthews educated her students in race history and literature. She maintained a collection of books on black history that was an available resource to all.
Realizing that young women were at risk when they arrived in the city, Matthews and her supporters decided to set up a place that would offer housing, as well as to have volunteers meet new migrants at train stations, to offer their safe housing. They purchased a house on 217 East 86th street, which was called the White Rose Home for Working Class Negro Girls, or the White Rose Mission. Matthews encouraged the girls to live with purity, goodness and virtue. To support the mission, she gained the support of prominent black ministers and major congregations, such as Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, who became a trustee of the mission.
Matthews took pride in her race; she also sought to inspire individuals by equipping them with practical skills. She believed that with self-sufficiency, they could have noble thoughts, and great ideas. Matthews and her volunteers taught young women the skills needed at the time: sewing, millinery, and cooking. The young women had the chance to get decent, if low paid work. The White Rose Industrial Home allowed for students to be around their teachers, learning from them and each other in daily life, as well as to have some protection for a time. The White Rose Home also provided specific education and a range of social activities. Lerner (1974) explained how the mission offered recreation, literary and cultural events, and classes on Negro history. Settlement houses such as Matthews', and those founded by other women for immigrants in Chicago and New York, influenced the later development of YMCAs and summer camps as well.Aunt Lindy (1893)
The all-black Victoria Earle Matthews (Mothers) Club, named after her, helped girls and women who had been sexually abused or threatened with such.