“Mother Ruth” Catherine M. Robinson

Copyright © 2022  Friends of Lebanon Cemetery.  All Rights Reserved.


Story by:  Tina Charles

Submitted by Samantha Dorm

March 1, 2022

Mrs. Catherine M. (Johnson) Robinson-Manley (1849-1920) was a courageous and bold woman who dared to transcend preconceived expectations and prove she was capable of doing all that a man could do and more, breaking the barrier of the “fraternal” organizations and becoming the “Mother of Ruth”.

She was reportedly born in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania but grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Not much is known about her younger years, but at the young age of 14, she was advocating for freedom before the Civil War by joining the “Underground Railroad of the Abolitionists”.  In 1855, she married David Moore Robinson (1835-1905), a native of Chester County, Pennsylvania, who had moved to Harrisburg as a boy.  David worked as a messenger in the state Treasury, had charge of the Executive Mansion under Governor James A. Beaver, and a watchman at the capitol.  Together they had 15 children, with only 6 surviving.

Catherine was a gifted vocalist. She made sure her children had an excellent education and were trained in music. The Robinson family would frequently give concerts at the capitol and court house.  Her daughter Jennie (Jean) Robinson, a violinist and vocalist, who attended Boston Conservatory of Music, was given the title “Star of the West” and toured the world, sometimes accompanying groups such as the notable Fisk Jubilee Singers. Her daughter Agnes, a soloist, studied in New York City and Chicago.  Her son, Harry, was a music teacher in Harrisburg before moving to New Jersey.

Harrisburg Telegraph July 8, 1878
Harrisburg Telegraph July 8, 1878

In July of 1878, they were invited by the Celebration Committee to sing at the court house for Independence Day.  Catherine penned a letter to the Editor of the Harrisburg Telegraph in response to the discrimination shown to them by the majority of “white singers” who refused to sing with them. This did not sway Catherine, though, as she stated they were “too patriotic and too thankful to God for freedom to keep our songs only in our hearts.”  They found a spot under a tree, whose “leaves did not refuse to shelter us,” and sang.

Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (G.U.O of O.F.)  The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was created in Europe and is a fraternal brotherhood group.  Lodges  modeled after their European counterparts spread among white communities  in the United States during the early 19th century, but they weren’t officially incorporated in the Grand United Odd Fellows. Blacks were interested in starting their own branch and had discussions with whites in these unincorporated American lodges, but were unsuccessful.  Peter Ogden, a colored steward who traveled between New York and Liverpool, England became an Odd Fellow while in England and was a member long before the  idea of an American lodge for nonwhite’s was considered.  He convinced American blacks to gain affiliation with an English lodge rather than the American lodges. Ogden presented the admission application in person during one of his voyages to England. The English Lodge did not hesitate, it is said, but gladly accepted…knowing no men by color.  They officially started activities in 1843, and the early membership drew from two established black groups who lacked mutual benefit components: the Philomethan Literary Society and the  Philadelphia Company and Debating Society.

Harrisburg Telegraph October 25, 1886
Harrisburg Telegraph October 25, 1886

Household of Ruth Early in 1856, the Noble Fathers, David Bustill Bowser, John C. Bowers, James Needham and Basil Goines of the Subcommittee of Management of Philadelphia, originated a plan of organizing a new body comprised of wives, sisters and daughters of the Odd Fellows. In September of 1856, Brother Patrick Reason, a delegate from Hamilton Lodge No. 710 presented the proposition requesting the consideration of the prosperity of establishing the Ruth Degree to be conferred under certain conditions on “females”.  This was sent to the Committee of Management in England for approval.  On March 3,1858, the Committee of Management in England approved. The design or object of the Household of Ruth Degree was to enlist the sympathies and assistance of women on behalf of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows and to unite the wives, daughters and other sisters more intimately with their fathers, husbands, and other brothers of the Order in working out the beauties of Oddfellowship.

Harrisburg Daily Independent March 4,1887
Harrisburg Daily Independent March 4,1887

On September 29, 1858, Brotherly Love Lodge No. 896 in Harrisburg, received the first Ruth Degree Warrant and was styled Household of Ruth No. 1, Miriana Lodge. The sister charter members were Sister Catherine M. Robinson, Sister J.C. Bustle, Sister J. Henson, Sister J.E. Price, Sister J. Gaitor and Sister M. Gaitor.  With a membership of 12 and finances totaling $24, the Household of Ruth was official.

By 1883, the number of Households grew to 300, the membership to 2,898 and the general treasury to $5,093.05. Today, there are Households of Ruth throughout United States, Canada, Bermuda, Bahamas, Netherlands, Republic of Dominica, Aruba, Puerto Rico, and St. Lucia.

Household of Ruth pin
Household of Ruth car emblem

During the biannual meeting in Philadelphia in 1886, a reception was held for Catherine.  She responded in her address, “This is one of the proudest moments of my life, and as I glance over this select and intelligent company and claim them not only as my sisters and brothers, but as my beloved children, I, the Mother Ruth, the first Presiding Officer, and Past Most Noble Governor of our great fraternity, feel my heart swell with joy and gratitude to the Great Master; and like Simeon who waited for the coming of the Lord, feel I could depart from this Household to meet with the Great Household above.”

She exemplified the Household of Ruth’s purpose –  relieve the needy, relieve the sick, and relieve the distressed – by joining the Women’s Relief Corps (WRC).  The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization consisting of veterans of the Union Army, Navy, and Marines who served in the war. Its purpose was not  only social but also political. It lobbied for veterans’ pensions,  supported voting rights for black veterans, and promoted patriotic  education, particularly celebration of Memorial Day. The WRC was a charitable organization founded as the official women’s auxillary to the G.A.R., mobilizing to provide aid to veterans and their families following the Civil War.

Like the military, the G.A.R. posts were segregated, as were the WRC. In York, Pennsylvania,  the David E. Small Post No. 369 also had an attached Women’s Relief Corps.  In 1887, Catherine was elected as an officer and in 1888, she was chosen as a delegate to attend the national convention held in Columbus, Ohio.

In 1891, the National African American League was quickly adding state chapters.  The purpose behind the organizing of the NAAL was to seek equal  opportunities in voting, civil rights, education, and public  accommodation. The organization also fought to end lynching’s in the  South, but the league mainly focused on obtaining full citizenship and  equality for African Americans. On May 20, 1891, a permanent state organization was effected in Pennsylvania. At this two-day meeting, Mrs. C.M. Robinson introduced a resolution. The next day, she was elected to the executive committee

Harrisburg Evening News August 2, 1919
Harrisburg Evening News August 2, 1919

Catherine was also very active in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.  Aside from sharing her singing talent at conferences, she was elected as the corresponding secretary for the Sunday School convention of the Baltimore District; she helped make preparations for the centennial in 1896; she was elected as delegate for the annual conference.  In 1900, both she and her daughter, Florence Robinson (who was the first colored girl admitted to Harrisburg High School), participated in paying tribute to Professor William Howard Day, just two months prior to his passing.

Catherine dedicated her life to the Household of Ruth, traveling the country to attend and speak at lodge meetings and anniversaries up until the year before her death in 1920.

The Buffalo American September 2, 1920

In 1920, at the home of her daughter in Toledo, Ohio, Catherine passed away. The only mention of her death was in The Buffalo American newspaper in Buffalo, New York.  She is buried in Forest Cemetery, the municipal cemetery of Toledo. She does not have a headstone. There is nothing to demonstrate her dedication to the Household of Ruth. The life of Catherine M. (Johnson) Robinson-Manley was anything but unremarkable.  She was one of many trailblazers of the past; not recorded in our history books. We honor her legacy by carrying forward the valuable lessons learned from the powerful examples she set. Whether serving in elected positions across America, participating in groundbreaking civil rights movements,  she proved that gender was no obstacle to what she could accomplish. Her actions opened new doors and have a profound and positive impact in history.

Many of the African-American cemeteries within York County, Pennsylvania are the final resting place of several members of the G.U.O. of O.F. and Household of Ruth.  Lebanon Cemetery, the largest of the cemeteries, has many of the people mentioned in the articles listed here.  Friends of Lebanon Cemetery is a nonprofit 501(c)(3). Through volunteer efforts, we work to uncover the rich history of  York County’s African-American burial grounds by researching,  identifying and documenting the people interred in these cemeteries,  linking familial ties, preserving and restoring not just their locations but their stories.  These places matter and merit our respect and  protection because they represent a collective history and offer a way  to preserve voices of those who were often left out of our historical narrative. Telling their stories through the preservation of their last resting places is vital to providing an authentic narrative of American  history.