The Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers Showcase Blacks in Antebellum America

Carte-de-visite of  Nancy Lewis Ruffin

Carte-de-visite of
Nancy Lewis Ruffin

The Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers serve as a great introduction into the lives of African Americans during the antebellum period in America. The papers reference several generations of the Ruffin family beginning with Nancy Lewis and George W. Ruffin, who were both antebellum free blacks in Richmond, Virginia. The collection includes correspondence between various members of the Heslip-Ruffin Family, as well as letters from famed abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The family’s achievements are documented through legal documents, biographical data, news clippings, printed ephemera, and photographs. Other African Americans that achieved notoriety are highlighted in the papers, as well.

George W. Ruffin worked as a barber and, with his wife Nancy Lewis Ruffin, believed in the value of education so strongly that Nancy and the children left Virginia when legislation prohibited African Americans from learning to read. Nancy moved to Boston where she became a seller of fruit and fish while George continued to financially support the family from Virginia. Their sacrifices set the foundation for subsequent success among their children and grandchildren, including their son, George L. Ruffin, who became the first Black to graduate from Harvard Law School (1869) and the first Black to be elected to a judgeship in Massachusetts (1883), and their granddaughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, who became a teacher after attending Boston Teachers College and Boston University.

Carte-de-visite of  George W. Ruffin

Carte-de-visite of
George W. Ruffin

The earliest correspondence between Nancy Lewis Ruffin and her husband George W. Ruffin is from the 1850s. Many of the letters in the collection were written to their son, George L. Ruffin, and the majority of the material in the family papers concerns his life and career. Other noteworthy documents are the free papers of George L.; photos of Paul Robeson’s family, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois; and 19th century receipts for food, furniture and medical treatments.

The Heslip and Ruffin families were active African American leaders in early 20th century social and political organizations such as the Women’s Era Club, a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). George L. Ruffin and his wife Josephine were active in elite African American social circles and befriended abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. George L. Ruffin even wrote the introduction to the 1881 edition of Douglass’ third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Josephine served as one of the founding members of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, founded the Women’s Era, a monthly magazine dedicated to African American women’s issues, and was editor in chief of the African American weekly newspaper “The Boston Courant.” Ultimately, The Heslip and Ruffin Family Papers serve as a rich source of a free Black antebellum family and their subsequent generations.

Posted by Chianta Dorsey

Images from the Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers. May not be reproduced without permission.

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