Ida Gray (Nelson Rollins), first African-American dentist in the United States, was born in Tennessee in 1867. Her single mom moved to Cincinnati when she was three where she attended segregated public schools.
She found work at Jonathan Taft dental offices where she was tutored and studied the dental trade. Dr Taft encouraged her to take the entrance exam at the University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry. In 1887 she was admitted and upon graduation, she started her practice in Cincinnati where she became the first black woman dentist.
She moved her practice to Chicago in 1895 after marrying James Nelson. Her practice served both black and white patients but was she known for her gentleness with children. She was vice president of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago and part of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, a group that maintained the only black women’s shelter in Chicago.
She was married twice with both husbands predeceasing her death in 1953 at age 86.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African American woman physician (1831-1895). Was born in the state of Delaware and grew up in Pennsylvania. In 1860, she applied and was accepted at the New England Female Medical College. She was the first and only black woman to graduate from that school as it closed its doors in 1873. Do realize she started her training before the Civil War. As late as 1920, there were only 65 African American women doctors in the United States.
After the Civil War in 1865, Dr Crumpler and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she was quoted: “I found the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”She wrote how she had to ignore daily episodes of racism, rude behavior, and sexism from her colleagues, pharmacists and man others in order to treat a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.”
The Crumplers returned to Boston in 1869 and then to Hyde Park, Massacuhutes in 1880. She published “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts” in 1883.
A Boston Globe article asked Dr Crumpler what the secret to a successful marriage was and she said “is to continue in the careful routine of the courting days, till it becomes well understood between the two. She and her husband, Arthur are both buried in Fairview Cemetery in Fairview Massachusetts that were unmarked until July 2020 where a fundraiser culminated the gravestones that were installed at a small celebration.
Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916) died at 24 – just imagine what she might have discovered if she lived a longer life. She was an African American chemist who developed an injectable oil extract that was the most effective treatment for leprosy until the 1940s. She was the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, she was also the first female chemistry professor at the university.
She was offered a scholarship to study at the College of Hawaii. Her master’s thesis involved studying the chemical properties of the Kava plant species. Because of this research and her understanding of the chemical makeup of plants, she was later approached by Dr. Harry T. Hollmann to study chaulmoogra oil and its chemical properties. Chaulmoogra oil had been the best treatment available for leprosy for hundreds of years, and Ball developed a much more effective injectable form. Ball was also the first African American “research chemist and instructor” in the College of Hawaii’s chemistry department.
A publication in 1922 cited her process as the “Ball Method”. Although, recognition of her work is late, In 2007 the University Board of Regents honored Ball with a Medal of Distinction, the school’s highest honor. In March 2016 Hawaii Magazine placed Ball on its list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history. In 2018 a new park in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood was named after Ball. In 2019 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine added her name to the frieze atop its main building, along with Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie, in recognition of their contributions to science and global health research. n November 6, 2020, a satellite named after her (ÑuSat 9 or “Alice”, COSPAR 2020-079A) was launched into space.
Daisy Smith, RN 1924-2020 – one of the first Black RNs in Toledo, came her as a wife and young mother two children and when her husband died shortly after the birth of the third child, she went to work as most single mothers find they must do. When housekeeping and cafeteria work did not bring her joy, she became interested in health care. Through training and education, she graduated with honors from the Medical College of Ohio with and received her RN, one of the first black women in Toledo. While working with UT’s Dr James Price, they did research and she co-authored 10 papers on the social determents of health in the black community. She became acutely aware of the need for more people of color in the health industry but also the need for more education in the black community about health.
She was a founding member of the Toledo Council of Black Nurses. “During those years there were very few black nurses,” said Ms. Smith of the reason for founding the group. “I was one of the first and there was a need for more black nurses. There was also a need in the black community for preventive health education … black nurses could fill that need.” Daisy Smith, Sojourners Truth V14 #12 July 2008
Ms Smith’s career spanned 6 decades and in the Sojourners Truth article by Fletcher Ward, in 2008 she was working to assist a long-time patient/friend in a nursing home. She was active in “getting African Americans to vote and being part of political process was equally strong. She was often involved in campaigns for local office and volunteered at local headquarters for gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. In fact, she was among those who successfully pushed to have the first political campaign established in Toledo’s inner city”. (Toledo Blade obituary March 2020)
Daisy Smith https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/toledoblade/obituary.aspx?n=daisy-smith&pid=195997968&fhid=27569
Cordelia “Cordi” Martin 1915-1999 was devoted to providing health care to Toledo’s poor. She opened the first Interim Health Center at 1636 W Bancroft Avenue helping to make health care more accessible to the community.
She raised 12 children with her husband Walter, but considered all the neighborhood children her own. As a volunteer with the Model Cities Neighborhood Residents association, she was disturbed by the lack of available health care for the disadvantaged. After years of effort, the Cordelia Martin Health Care Center opened in 1971 on Nebraska Ave. The center is one of 10 sites (including the Mildred Bayer Clinic for the Homeless) administered by the Neighborhood Health Association. Primarily serving low to moderate income, uninsured and underinsured people, the center includes doctors’ offices, dental care, a lab, pharmacy, the federal WIC program, and social service education and referrals.
Martin received a degree from the University of Toledo and worked for eighteen years as a social worker for Planned Parenthood. She was active in the NAACP and the Frederick Douglas Community Center.
In 2001, she was inducted into the Toledo Civic Hall of Fame and her plaque is on the third Floor of the Toledo Library
Matilda Evans was born in Aiken, South Carolina 1872 where she attended the Schofield Industrial School founded by Quaker, Martha Schofield whose mission was to help educate emancipated Americans. Encouraged by Martha Schofield, Evans enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio, attended on scholarship for almost four years, and left before graduating, in 1891, to pursue a medical career.
She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) in1897 and was the first African American woman licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina. She practiced obstetrics, gynecology, and surgery, and cared for patients in her own home until she established the Taylor Lane Hospital of Columbia in 1901, granting medical care to many underserved communities.
Rare for the time, she believed that health care should be a citizenship right and governmental responsibility, much like education. She strongly advocated public health care and petitioned the State Board of Health of South Carolina to give her free vaccines for black children. In 1916 Evans created the Negro Health Association of South Carolina and in 1918 she volunteered in the Medical Service Corps of the United States Army during World War I.
An author and editor, she founded and ran The Negro Health Journal of South Carolina. Dr. Evans never married; she adopted and raised seven children and served as a foster parent for more than two dozen others. She died in 1935 at the age of 63 after a short illness, leaving a remarkable legacy of service to her patients, students, and community despite the daunting obstacles of a segregated society and limited resources.
Personal note from Linda: When I lived in South Carolina, my daughter attended Schofield Middle School that still exists today.
Dr. Olivia Letts, the first Black teacher hired by the Lansing School District in Michigan died Monday February 1, 2021 at 93 in the home of her daughter, Eileen Letts. Olivia Letts belonged to MSU’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha and got to see her sorority sister Kamala Harris, a Howard University alumna, inaugurated as vice president.
“She sat in front of the television the entire day enjoying that,” Eileen Letts said.
Dr. Letts graduated from Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) where she earned her Bachelor’s in Education. She received three advanced degrees from Loyola University and Michigan State University — M. A. in Education, Ed.S. in Educational Administration and a Ph.D. in Curriculum.
While Letts was living in Chicago and dating her future husband Richard “Dick” Letts, from Lansing Michigan, himself a renowned champion of black rights, she applied to the Lansing schools and received a letter saying, “they had never made a practice of hiring anyone of her race but they would keep her under consideration,” in 1950.
According to a 1990 interview with Richard he was motivated to help her get this job as he wanted to marry her and she wouldn’t come to Lansing without this. He encouraged her to keep trying while he enlisted support from the community. Suffice it to say, they married in 1951 the same year she was hired. She was promoted to a principal position in 1961.
Her contributions to education went beyond being a “First” as she served on multiple organization including the Capital Region Community Foundation, The Lansing Community College Foundation and she was active with Highfields and Delta Tau Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She dedicated herself to increasing access for future teachers of color. She was a leader and example of strength, courage, and grace in the face of racial inequality.
From her obituary in the Lansing State Journal, “A consummate optimist, Olivia Letts preferred books with happy endings. She liked novels by Nicholas Sparks and Barack Obama’s memoirs.”
Personal note from Linda: My grandmother, Jessie Kirkby, lived on Howe St in Lansing Michigan and her next door neighbor was Mrs. Letts who through my librarian sleuthing I found was the mother-in-law of Dr Letts and I do believe that my sister and I played with her daughter, Eileen when we were all you in the late 50s.
In a speech from 1958, Jane Bolin, the first black women to graduate from Yale Law school in 1931, discussed women’s struggle for equal rights:
“Those gains we have made were never graciously and generously granted,” she said. “We had to fight every inch of the way, in the face of sometimes insufferable humiliations.”
She was born, Jane Matilda Bolin on April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was the youngest of four children. Her father, Gaius C. Bolin, was a lawyer, practiced law in Dutchess County for fifty years and was the first black president of the Dutchess County Bar Association.
In 1939, she became our nation’s first Black woman judge having been appointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at 31 years old. According to the New York Times, Bolin ruled on important family court cases throughout her career and worked with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support a program that aimed to root out crime among young boys. She remained a judge of the court, renamed the Family Court in 1962, for 40 years, with her appointment being renewed three times, until she was required to retire aged 70.
After a life of groundbreaking achievements, Jane Bolin died on Monday, January 8, 2007 at the age of 98 in Long Island City, Queens, New York. Bolin was an activist on the bench, a staunch Republican, severed on the board of the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Child Welfare League. She received honorary degrees from Tuskegee, Williams College, Hampton University, Western College for Woman and Morgan State University.
Judge Bolin’s obituary http://www.thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=637
Ebony Magazine with Judge Bolin on the cover August 1947 https://www.ebony.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/0847_EBCOV-296×400.jpg
Leontyne Price, who will be 94 on February 10, 2021, is one of America’s most beloved opera divas. She was the first African American soprano to have a major career at the Metropolitan Opera with 21 seasons at the Met, 201 performances, 16 roles in house and on tour. She has given master classes at Juilliard and other renowned schools.
In 1997 she wrote the children’s book version of Aida which became the basis for the Broadway musical by Elton John and Time Rice in 2000. Born Mary Violet Leontyne Price in Mississippi, by three she began piano lessons and by five, she became a regular at her church and other events. By the early 1950s she was touring the world and was often on television and during the mid-50s she toured Europe under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and on May 3, 1957, she sang her first public performance of Aida at a May Festival program in Ann Arbor Michigan in of what became her signature role.
She has been the performer for presidents, singing for Presidents Lyndon B Johnson’s funeral, President Jimmy Carter’s visit with Pope John Paul II, and at events for Presidents Reagan, George H Bush and Clinton.
Personal note from Linda: She was the first opera singer I heard live in the late 1960s when she was on tour in Detroit. I went backstage and got her signature on the playbill.
Enjoy the YouTube link of her singing Verdi from the Bell Telephone Hour circa 1960s.