Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee: Civil Rights Pioneer

Today’s guest post is written by the Honorable Diane Kiesel, an acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court. She is the author of She Can Bring us Home (2015), a biography of Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee. On Wednesday, September 21st at 6pm, Kiesel will give a lecture, “Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee:  Civil Rights Pioneer.” There is no charge, but please register in advance here.   

Today, when social security and Medicare address the needs of the elderly, health care programs are in place to take care of the sick and a myriad of government agencies exist to help the poor, it is hard to imagine a time when the hungry, the elderly, the sick and the poverty stricken – particularly if they were people of color – were largely forgotten.

Diane Kiesel's She Can Bring Us Home, a biography of Dorothy Boulding Ferebee.

Diane Kiesel’s She Can Bring Us Home, a biography of Dorothy Boulding Ferebee.

Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee (1898-1980), was a well-known African American physician in her day who focused on the health needs of the destitute early in the 20th century, providing a private safety net where none was yet put in place by the government. For seven summers during the Great Depression, Dr. Ferebee, who came from privilege and whose Washington, D.C. medical practice catered to the upper class of her race, led what came to be known as the Mississippi Health Project.  She and a team of all-volunteer doctors, nurses, schoolteachers and social workers traveled to the Mississippi Delta to bring health care to tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The women who made up the health project were graduates of some of the nation’s finest historic black colleges and members of the elite Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. They left their comfortable homes to drive thousands of miles of unpaved roads through the Deep South to swelter in the cotton fields for their cause.

dorothy-and-car

Photo of Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, ca. 1958. Courtesy of Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington D.C.

It was a daunting task. Their sharecropper patients earned about $50 a year; they worked the most fertile ground on earth but their diets contained almost no fruits or vegetables because the landowners refused to let them use valuable cotton acreage for gardens. They suffered from diseases that had not, and should not, have been seen in the United States since the 19th century – even though it was 1935. Pellagra and rickets were common, as were outbreaks of smallpox. Tuberculosis deaths were rampant. Thirty percent of the black men in the region suffered from untreated syphilis. Dr. Ferebee’s health team not only had to face disease, but ignorance. Some mothers had no idea how old their own children were. They thought if they put tea bags on their children’s eyes, they would cure their colds and feared cutting their hair lest their children be unable to speak.  Some of them had never seen a physician and others had never used a toothbrush.

In the Jim Crow South, Dr. Ferebee’s motives were suspect – some plantation owners feared she was a Communist union organizer or civil rights agitator. But she persevered, and before World War II gasoline and rubber rationing helped put an end to the project, she and her team provided inoculations, medical and dental care as well as nutrition and hygiene lessons to 15,000 of the poorest of the poor. To this day the United States Public Health Service calls it the best volunteer health effort in history.

Ferebee Scrapbook, Box 183-30.

Dorothy and her medical team stuck in the mud in Mississippi. Photo Courtesy of Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington D.C.  From the Ferebee Scrapbook, Box 183-30.

The Mississippi Health Project propelled Dorothy Ferebee into the national spotlight. She became president of Alpha Kappa Alpha and followed the iconic Mary McLeod Bethune as the leader of the National Council of Negro Women. In that role she met with presidents and testified before Congress on major civil rights issues. She became a consultant to the State Department where she traveled to Third World countries to bring best health care practices to emerging nations.

Fifty years after the Mississippi Health Project ended one of the participants described it as the inspiration for the next generation of civil rights activists who participated in Freedom Summer and the voting rights struggles of the early 1960s.

Join us to learn more about Dr. Ferebee, this Wednesday night, at The New York Academy of Medicine (103rd St. and Fifth Avenue) for a lecture and book signing (books will be available for purchase on site). Register here; we look forward to seeing you!

A Medical Symphony: Celebrating African Americans in New York Medicine

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

The Knick’s Dr. Algernon Edwards struggles for acceptance as a medical professional, even when his expertise and knowledge outstrips many of his colleagues. How unusual was his experience as an African American practicing medicine in turn-of-the-century New York? As medical training and practice became more heavily regulated in the latter half of the 19th century, access to the professions was constrained by issues of ethnicity, gender, class, and religion.

Gerald Spencer. From A Medical Symphony.

Gerald Spencer. From A Medical Symphony.

A slim green volume in our collections gives a small glimpse into some of the many stories of pioneering African American medical professionals. Our copy of the 1947 book Medical Symphony: A Study of The Contributions of The Negro to Medical Progress in New York is signed by author Dr. Gerald A. Spencer, a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine. The volume brings together lectures and articles in which Dr. Spencer explores the attempt by African Americans to, in his words, join in “striving for medical symphony in which all races and creeds will be given the fullest opportunities to study and to make their unhampered contributions.”1

As Dr. Spencer describes, in the last quarter of the 19th century, around 12 African American physicians had graduated from schools in New York and other northern states. Together, they founded the McDonough Memorial Hospital, which commemorated David McDonough. McDonough, born a slave, was selected for an education by his owner as part of a bet to establish the potential of African Americans for learning. McDonough not only succeeded in his studies, but went on to gain his freedom and practice on the staff at the New York Hospital and New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. While it only operated between 1898 and 1904, McDonough Memorial Hospital established itself as being open to physicians, nurses, and patients of every background and nationality. Also established in 1898, the Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses in the Bronx was the only place for African American nurses to train after the closure of the McDonough Memorial Hospital until the opening of the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in 1923.

Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses, Class of 1907. From A Medical Symphony.

Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses, Class of 1907. From A Medical Symphony.

Integration in New York hospitals, public health agencies, and medical societies was limited in the first decades of the 20th century, but by the 1940s, when Dr. Spencer wrote his volume, integration was making inroads in the city’s institutions. Dr. Spencer wrote Medical Symphony to emphasize the many African American physicians rising to positions of prominence within the hospital system, the enormous public health impact of trained nurses, and acceptance into learned societies.

Dr. Aubre De L. Maynard's recommendation letter of Dr. Spencer.

Dr. Aubre De L. Maynard’s recommendation letter of Dr. Spencer. Click to enlarge.

Dr. Spencer was from St. Lucia in the British West Indies and studied at the College of the City of New York before receiving a medical degree from the University of Lyon, France, in 1932. Many students of African descent found the barriers to an education less intractable in European medical centers. Dr. Spencer became a resident physician at the Skin and Cancer Hospital in New York, and visiting dermatologist at Harlem Hospital. He also became a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1942, described by one of his referees as a “man of excellent character, scholarly and profound.”2

Disparities in access to health care, and access to the health professions, have not disappeared over time. However, Medical Symphony reminds us of the many stories of success that can be celebrated. For those interested in learning more about who became a doctor in New York over time, join us at “Who Becomes a Medical Doctor in New York City: Then and Now – a Century of Change” on December 11.

References

1. Spencer GA. Medical symphony: a study of the contributions of the Negro to medical progress in New York. New York: 1947.

2. Spencer, GA. Application for fellowship form. Letter from Aubre de L Maynard, MD, March 10, 1942. New York Academy of Medicine Archives.

“Die Free”: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Surgeon's Certificate for  Dick Parker Wills 1903

Surgeon’s Certificate for Dick Parker Wills 1903

More than 200,000 African men served in the Union Army’s United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Among them were James Wills, Mack Wills, Dick (Wills) Parker, Andy Wills and Richard Wills, who fled the Tennessee plantation of Edmund Wills to join the 4th Heavy Field Artillery of Columbus, Kentucky.

In Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale acclaimed journalist Cheryl Wills explores the story of her great-great-great grandfather, Sandy Wills, and his companions. In unearthing her family history, she uncovers the discrepancies, disparities, and decisions “great and small, careless and deliberate” that impacted the treatment and care of black soldiers.

Black soldiers died from disease at a disproportionate rate to their white compatriots, and, as documented in Die Free, their higher burden of mortality continued after the end of the war. Evidence from medical records and surgeon’s certificates indicates that many black soldiers also struggled to have their conditions taken seriously and to be granted pensions.

We are delighted to be welcoming Cheryl Wills to the New York Academy of Medicine on December 10. She will appear in discussion with the renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, to explore the experiences of her family, and reflect on the ongoing legacy of the discrimination they suffered.

Discover more about Die Free here. In addition to their service as soldiers, African Americans also acted as nurses, surgeons and hospital workers during the Civil War. Some of these contributions are explored in Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries, an exhibition at the National Library of Medicine.