African Americans have come a long way in history. From oppression since the 1600’s to Martin Luther King Jr., then to Barack Obama serving his country with two terms in Presidency. The culture has seen many achievements throughout history and is bound to see many more. In all cultures and all ways of life, there is a first for everything. The African American race and culture has had many memorable ones including the first doctors.
To be a doctor and of the African American race was a remarkable achievement due to the severe oppression they faced and how hard they fought for things that whites took for granted like education, public transportation, and discrimination in the workplace. That is why it was and is so significant to be one of our country’s first African American doctors. These men and women fought for their right to education and the right to practice medical care. They worked even harder than the white doctors of their time. Every single one of these doctors had perseverance, patience, and a willingness to stand up for what they believed in despite the hate, discrimination, and oppression around them. These historical doctors all made their dreams come true no matter what kind of obstacles hindered them and slowed them down. They made history and filled others with hope, faith, and encouragement to fight for what they believed in and what they wanted.
Dr. James McCune Smith
The first African American to ever hold a medical degree was James McCune Smith. The state of New York would not allow Mr. Smith to attend medical school, so he ventured to Scotland and returned back home with his degree to help the poor of New York City. He earned his degree in 1837, making him America’s first African American doctor that was professionally trained. Mr. Smith built his medical office in lower Manhattan and worked at an orphanage as the resident physician. Within his lifetime, Smith was a celebrated teacher, anti-slavery leader, and writer.
Unfortunately, after his death in 1865, he was buried in an unmarked grave, and his name fell into obscurity. James Smith lived in a time where African Americans went unrecognized for their achievements. So, he didn’t receive recognition for his legacy until over a century later when his descendants learned they were related to him.
Dr. John Henry Jordan
John Henry Jordan was the first African American doctor in Coweta County Georgia in the early 1900’s. Mr. Jordan graduated top of his class at Meharry Medical College in 1896. His success was significant as he had no support from his family and a lack of finances which had already forced him to drop out the year prior. His persistence to follow his dream of being a doctor eventually paid off for him as he started his practice in 1898.
Aside from being an exceptional doctor and a loving husband and father, he also opened the first black hospital in Coweta County. He was known for his success rate in performing difficult operations and helping to integrate medicine in his county after saving a wealthy white man’s child. A car accident claimed the life of John Henry Jordan on September 16, 1912, when he was 42 and going to a house call. His biggest regret in life was his inability to save his first son, Johnny Clementine’s, life. The city of Newnan remembered him when they named the first housing project in the low-income community after him, Jordan Homes.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was not only one of the first African American doctors in the nation, but she was also a woman. She faced double the skepticism due to her culture and gender, but that didn’t stop her from making history and following her dreams. She was born in Delaware on February 8, 1831, as Rebecca Davis. She spent her childhood in Pennsylvania where he aunt cared for the ill. As a child, Rebecca was bright and attended a prestigious private school called West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts. She later went on to work as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1852. In 1860, Rebecca made the brave decision to apply to the medical school of New England Female Medical College and was accepted. The college was in Boston and was part of the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Many men scoffed at the school in it’s beginning years saying that women lacked the physical strength to practice medicine. Others claimed that in addition to not being physically capable, many of the subjects taught were inappropriate for women and their delicate, sensitive nature.
Rebecca became the only African American graduate of the college in 1864 since it closed its doors in 1873. To get a better understanding just how incredible this achievement was for her and our country’s history, consider this: in 1860, there were only 300 women out of over 54,543 doctors in the United States, and none of them were African American. By 1920, there were still only 65 African American doctors in the nation. Around the time she graduated, Rebecca married for the second time following the death of her first husband, and they moved to Richmond Virginia. There she worked under General Orlando Brown who was the assistant commissioner for the Freedman’s Bureau. The bureau helped more than 4,000,000 slaves escape bondage and make the transition to freedom. To treat people in Richmond, Mrs. Rebecca Crumpler endured and ignored racism, sexism, and rude behavior from many people including her colleagues.
The Crumpler’s returned to Boston in 1869, where Rebecca practiced medicine until 1880 where they again moved to Hyde Park, New York. There she wrote the book, “A Book of Medical Disclosures in Two Parts,” which published in 1883. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler succumbed to death just a few years after the book published in 1885 in Hyde Park. She left behind a successful life of medical work and a legacy full of inspiration and encouragement for African American women that lives on today.
We owe so much to these first doctors that paved the way through prejudice and difficulties. We can all be proud of these past heroes that made a real difference in America!