Black Women in Medicine

I hope you have been enjoying the stories we have posted so far of Black Women in America. We have arranged the posts in categories so that you can see how many outstanding black women there are in every walk of life.  So far, we have related the stories of scholars and educators, artists, scientists, and inventors. My intent with these posts is to honor these women as well as to raise awareness of their abilities and contributions to our society.

One of the things I like about posting is using the pictures. Nowadays you can go on the web and get pictures and illustrations of people’s accomplishments. For the last post it was great to see the designs and work of the Black female artists. For the inventors, it was enlightening to go to the website of the Patent Office and get excerpts from the women’s own descriptions of their inventions.  

We noted the magnificent artistic designs and intelligent inventions from beautiful and creative minds. This should be proof that black women are as equally capable in any area of life as white women, or black or white men. This week we will see that gifted black women made many contributions to the medical field. Their work has resulted in a better life for countless thousands.

There have been many black women who have made contributions in the field of medicine. In the next two posts, we will highlight 5 of them. I will go in somewhat chronological order starting with Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Mary Eliza Mahoney this week, since our theme is Black Women Firsts. Dr. Crumpler was the first black woman to receive an M.D. and Mary Mahoney was the first black licensed nurse.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) – First Black Woman M.D. in the U.S.

Dr. Crumpler was born Rebecca Davis on February 8, 1831, in Delaware. Her parents were Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber. We don’t have much information about her early years, but she apparently spent much of her time with an aunt in Pennsylvania. This aunt was her role model. Rebecca later wrote a book, A Book of Medical Discourse: In Two Parts (1883)[1] where she says in her introduction:

“Having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to be in a position to, relieve the sufferings of others.” Dr. Crumpler would live out her intentions to care for the underprivileged until her death.

Between 1852 and 1860, Rebecca worked as a nurse in Boston. The doctors she worked with encouraged her to go to the New England Female Medical College. She was a member of the first 12 students to attend and after four years of study received her degree in 1864.

At the time there were only 300 female doctors in the country, out of a total of 54.543 physicians and all of the female doctors were white. We now recognize Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler as the first female black physician in the U.S.

Rebecca married twice. Her first husband, Wyatt Lee passed away in 1863. After her graduation she met and married Dr. Arthur Crumpler. They had one daughter, Lizzie Sinclair Crumpler. 

In 1865, after the end of the war, Dr. Lee Crumpler worked in Richmond, Virginia for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. This is also known as the “Freedman’s Bureau” and it primarily served to aid freed slaves. She was the only black female doctor employed by the bureau, which was crucial since few white doctors would see black patients. 

One of the reasons Dr. Crumpler wrote A Book of Medical Discourse was to aid in fighting the racial discrimination. At that time, white doctors believed that black people were getting sick because they were very different physically from white people. Apart from inherited tendencies, which we know more about now, Dr. Crumpler showed that black and white men and women and children were physically the same. The reason so many blacks were getting sick was because of the social conditions that left black people living in poverty. The answer was to improve living conditions and teach people good habits.

Dr. Crumplers’ other reason for writing the book was to instruct women particularly in how to care for their children. Dr. Crumpler believed that disease could be prevented. Her book dedication reads:

“To mothers, nurses, and all who desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race, this book is prayerfully offered.” At the end of her introduction she says, “My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.” 

In 1869, Dr. Crumpler went back to Boston, where she lived in a black neighborhood. She treated patients whether they could pay or not. She explained, “At the close of my services in (Richmond), I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.”

Dr. Crumpler served for 25 years in Boston and died there on March 9, 1895, at the age of 64. She had lived up to the missionary heart that she had had since childhood, serving others by relieving their suffering. How wonderful that she is remembered as much for her love and sacrifice as for her accomplishment as the first black female M.D. in the U.S.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mary Eliza Mahoney is noted for becoming the first Black licensed nurse. She was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1845 to freed slaves. She received a good education at the Philips School in Boston, which had been integrated since 1855. 

Mary Eliza had known from her teens that she wanted to be a nurse. She pursued her dream by working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children.[2] This hospital was unique because it had an all-woman staff. Mary worked there for 15 years learning many aspects of nursing. With her truly servant’s heart she also cooked and cleaned. 

In 1878, when she was 33, Mary enrolled in the newly founded Nursing School at the hospital. The 16-month program was extremely intensive and only 4 of the original 42 students graduated, including Mary. Mary attended lectures while working in the hospital. Finishing the program made her the first African American to obtain a professional license for nursing. 

After graduation, Mary thought about public nursing but there was too much discrimination in the medical field. She pursued a career as a private nurse and focused on the care of individual patients. She soon developed a reputation for her bedside manner, efficiency, and gentle care.

Mary became a member of many nurse’s associations including Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). Because the mainly white members of the NAAUSC were not always welcoming to black nurses, Mary Eliza decided that a group was needed for African American nurses.  In 1908, she helped to found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). At the NACGN’s first national convention, she gave the opening speech and the members elected her to be the national chaplain and gave her membership for life.  

In 1911 and 1912, Mary was the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children in Kings Park, Long Island, New York. During this time, she championed women’s rights. When the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, Mary was the among the first women to register to vote in Boston.

Mary had worked in her profession for forty years when she retired in early 1920’s. She was afflicted with breast cancer around 1923. After bravely struggling with it she passed away on January 4, 1926. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.

After her passing recognitions with awards and memorials followed due to Mary’s pioneering spirit. In 1936 the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award in her honor. This award is given for those who will promote integration in medicine. The award continues to be given today by the American Nurses Association. The AHA further honored Mary. In 1976 the AHA inducted Mary into their Hall of Fame. Because of her efforts in the cause of women’s suffrage, Mary was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York in 1993. 

In 1973, Helen S. Miller (who had won the Mahoney Award in 1968) decided to honor Mary with a memorial at her gravesite in Everett. She began a fundraising drive and with the help of many professional and student nurses, Chi Eta Phi (sorority for nurses), and the American Nursing Association, the monument was built in 1973.[3]

[1] Here is a link to A Book of Medical Discourse in Two Parts:



“Part first: treating of the cause, prevention, and cure of infantile bowel complaints, from birth to the close of the teething period, or till after the fifth year. Part second: containing miscellaneous information concerning the life and growth of beings, the beginning of womanhood, also the cause, prevention, and cure of many of the most distressing complaints of women, and youth of both sexes.”

[2] This hospital was founded by Marie Zakrzewska to provide a place for women to get proper medical care. Marie’s other goals were to provide competent female doctors for women and children, educate women, and train nurses. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell helped her to become a doctor. See post on Dr. Blackwell from October 7, 2015. https://mylordkatie.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/drs-elizabeth-and-emily-blackwell/

[3] In 1986, Helen published a book, Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845-1926: America’s First Black Professional Nurse, a Historical Perspective (Wright Publishing Company). 

Black Women Inventors

It’s been an amazing journey for me to discover how many wonderful things Black Women have done in America. I hope you have enjoyed the stories we have posted so far of black women in education both as scholars and educators, black women artists, and black women scientists. My intent with these posts is to honor these women as well as to raise awareness of their abilities and contributions to our society.

I think that the stories this week of Black Women Inventors may surprise you. I have to admit that I am just as guilty as most people are of assuming that mechanical innovations were mostly done by men. I was delighted to see how many devices were developed by creative black women to make everyone’s work easier. 

Since this series is featuring Black Women Firsts, we will also tell the story of the first black woman to receive a U.S. Patent. There is some dispute about who the first patent went to, but that will be part of the interest in this post. 

Judy W. Reed (1826-1905) – Dough Kneader and Roller

Little is known about Judy Woodford Reed. Her name appears in the 1870 Federal Census as a seamstress living near Charlottesville, Virginia. She and her husband Allen, a gardener, had five children. We don’t know their ages, but 10 years later Judy and Allen were still living in Virginia and this time a grandson was recorded.

Allen must have died sometime between 1880 and 1885 because Judy was referring to herself as the “widow” of Allen Reed when she moved to Washington D.C. She was residing there with her children when she received her patent, No. 305,474 for a “Dough Kneader and Roller” on September 23, 1884. Her machine, an improvement on existing rollers, allowed the dough to mix more evenly. The dough was also covered which protected the it from dust and other particles in the air and kept it from drying out.

Since she signed her patent with an “X” it is probable that she could not read or write or even sign her name. Since the patent application did not require the person to state their gender or race it took a long time for researchers to determine how many African American women received patents. Thankfully the research has been done and we can honor Judy W. Reed for her invention, even though we don’t know anything else about her after that.[1]

Martha Jones (First Patent?) – Corn Husker, Sheller

According to Rebecca Tapscott in another article on Black women inventors, Martha Jones may have been the first black woman to receive a patent. Martha Jones was granted patent No. 77,494 for an “Improvement to the Corn Husker, Sheller” in 1868.[2] Martha Jones could see the value in using the whole ear of corn. Once the grain was removed from the husks, the husks could then be used as a substitute for hay or straw and fed to horses and cattle. Furthermore, according to Martha, the husks could be used for bedding for animals or in mattresses.

Here is Martha’s description from her Patent followed by a picture:

The operation of the machine is as follows: The ears of corn are introduced at the upper end of the spout, and the ears are pressed by the spring against the face of the wheel, and the cars of corn receive a rotary motion, and are cut somewhat by the projections 11 b. The ears, by reason of their gravity, are then operated upon by the spirally-arranged knives cc, which thoroughly husk the cars, and cut up the husks; the projections d on the wheel then shell the ears, the corn falling upon the inclined board m. The blast from the fan-wheel drives the lighter husks away from the corn.[3]

Sarah Goode (1855?-1905) – Foldable Bed/Desk

Sarah Elisabeth Jacobs was born in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio. She was the second of the seven children of Oliver and Harriet Jacobs. Olive was a carpenter. The family later moved to Chicago, Illinois where Sarah met and married Archibald Goode. “Archie” built stairs and did upholstery. Sarah and Archie had six children, only three of whom survived to adulthood. 

Sarah opened a furniture store. At this time there was a movement in the population to big cities where people would live in apartments. Sarah noticed that the living space was getting crowded and decided to invent a piece of furniture that would help solve the problem.

Here in her own words from her patent application is what she did: 

This invention relates to that class of sectional bedsteads adapted to be folded together when not in use, so as to occupy less space, and made generally to resemble some article of furniture when so folded. The objects of the invention are, first, to provide a folding bed of novel construction, adapted, when folded together, to form a desk suitable for office or general use second; to provide for counterbalancing the weight of the folding sections of the bed, so that they may be easily raised or lowered in folding or unfolding eh bed; third to provide for holding the hinged or folding sections securely in place when the ed is unfolded, and, fourth, to provide and automatic auxiliary support of the bedding at the middle when the bed in unfolded. My invention consists in the arrangement and combinations of parts hereinafter described, and pointed out in the claims.[4]

Sarah’s invention was the precursor to the Murphy bed which was patented in 1900. Her goal was to balance the weight so it could be easily lifted up. She also had to ensure support to the center of the bed when it was unfolded. Perhaps this drawing will help illustrate her genius:

In 2012 the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, a science and math focused high school, was opened in her honor on the south side of Chicago. Companies like IBM partner with students enabling them to graduate with industry certificates that are the equivalent of two years of college credit. The school’s vision is to nurture creativity and prepare students for technology jobs in the future.

Other Noteworthy Black Women Inventors

There were so many wonderful innovations by black women that I decided to alert you to some great articles where you can read about their inventions.[5] As I said in the introduction I am really especially intrigued by the scientific and mechanical inventions. In our next post we will look at innovations in the medical field. 

Here is a summary of just a couple of inventions by incredible black woman firsts. 

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson (born 1946), the first black woman to earn a doctorate from MIT is credited with the research and development that led the way to touch-tone phones, fax machines, fiber optic cables and much more. She was also the first black female president of a major technological institute, and the first black women appointed chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

Alice Parker

Alice H. Parker is credited with designing a natural gas-fueled furnace. Her design earned a patent in 1919. Her design was a precursor to modern furnaces with thermostats and forced air.

Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas, a physicist, inventor, and NASA data analyst is credited with inventing the technology that was the precursor to TV screens and 3D technology. 

Home security, rock and roll, a good hairbrush, downtown developer, and 3D movies are just a few of the many things we have to thank creative black women for.

It’s time we honor our black women inventors!

[1] Read this story and others by Rebecca Tapscott (an intellectual property  rights attorney working as a staff writer for IPWatchdog) on: https://www.ipwatchdog.com/2021/02/16/signed-x-judy-reed-improved-dough-kneader-roller/id=129915/

[2] This article is at: https://www.ipwatchdog.com/2021/02/01/better-way-husk-martha-jones-first-black-woman-receive-patent/id=129514/  

[3] https://patents.google.com/patent/US77494A/en?oq=77494

[4] https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/0c/d4/20/e3dfe1d0327e7e/US322177.pdf

[5] 10 Black Women Innovators and the Awesome Things They Brought Us. https://www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2016/03/21/10-black-women-innovators-and-the-awesome-things-they-brought-us

Black Women Scientists

I feel privileged to be able to relate the stories of even a few of the many gifted and talented Black Women in America. We began our stories during Black History Month by honoring black women who were the first to earn PhD’s. We discovered other noteworthy black women in education and then went on to relate the stories of famous writers in both prose and poetry.

In the last post I really enjoyed displaying the pictures of black female artists and their work. This week we continue with our series on Black American Women with the stories of remarkable but overlooked scientists. It’s about time we honor them for their contributions to America. The reason I am posting these stories is to raise the awareness of these women who should be honored and not forgotten. I am so glad that in the last few years Hollywood is making movies about some of their lives. 

Three remarkable Black Female Scientists crossed racial and gender lines to contribute important work to NASA. Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are some of the many forgotten women, especially black women, who achieved amazing things in spite of the prejudice and roadblocks thrown at them. All extremely brilliant women, they were the brains behind the launch of John Glenn into space in the 1960’s space race. Their work helped our country to put a man on the moon.

Hollywood made a movie about these women called Hidden Figures.[1]  I have read biographies on Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson and the movie does a pretty good job of relating their true stories. The movie tells what the women went through – early childhood and education, what they suffered in order to be accepted in society, and obstacles they encountered at work. The extras in the special Blu-Ray edition relate more of the many achievements of these incredible women. Here are a few highlights (some of the information obtained through my further research):

Katherine Goble Johnson (August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020)

Katherine was a math prodigy who graduated from West Virginia State College summa cum laude at only age 18. She married and had three children. Sadly, Mr. Goble died of a brain tumor. Later she remarried.

Katherine was an aerospace technologist. She verified the computer’s numbers for John Glenn’s orbit around the earth in 1962, calculated the historic Apollo 11 trip to the moon, and worked on the calculations that helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to earth after it malfunctioned in 1970. In the movie you will hear how John Glenn praised her work. It is a true story!!

Katherine was one of only a few African American women to do computing at Langley’s Research Center in Virginia. She had to contend with both racism and sexism. Our country should be thankful that Katherine did not let prejudice stop her. Along with other black female scientists she should be considered one of the bravest women who ever lived in addition to being faithful and one of the most intelligent. 

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008)

Dorothy received her training at Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1929. She married Howard Vaughan and they had six children. In 1943, Dorothy went to work at Langley as one of the African American women who were hired due to President Roosevelt’s executive order forbidding racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination in the defense industry as he sought to fill the jobs needed for the war effort. Dorothy was one of the countless female human “computers” who did the math for the space industry.

Later when IBM introduced digital computers to replace the human computers, Dorothy was smart enough to figure a way to keep her job and the jobs of the other women. She taught herself and them the Fortran programming Language for the IBM 704 mainframe computers that NASA was installing. (Just look at that room full of machines in the movie and realize that your cell phone has more computing power than all of that!!) Still more marvelous to me is the fact that Dorothy could keep all of those figures in her head!! This should put an end to the belief that black women are not capable. 

Mary Jackson

We already covered Mary Jackson’s story in Black Women in America – Part 5 – “A Tale of Two Mary’s”. You can read more details there. Briefly, Mary became NASA’s first female engineer at the age of 37. She made major contributions in the field of engineering. She was part of the NASA space efforts and received the Apollo Group Achievement Award. 

Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. (Psalm115:1).

The movie does show the religious faith of these women. In their biographies though you will find out more what tremendous Christian women they were who believed that God had gifted them for a purpose. They all just wanted to succeed and were willing to overlook the prejudice against them. In that era, blacks were often just happy to have a job. These women also wanted to give back. Their gratitude for what they had should put those of us who have never encountered their obstacles to shame. They are an inspiration!

It is finally time after 60 years that Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are recognized for their achievements. Though things have changed a lot since the 1940’s and 50’s, there is still a struggle for full racial and gender equality. The stories of these women will go a long way to erase the idea that women, especially black women are inferior.

[1] It is available on Amazon, and I bet you can stream it. Here is a trailer to the movie:


Black Women Artists

This year we have the privilege of relating the stories of some very remarkable Black American Women. In these few months we can only touch on a few. I hope that this will encourage you to find and read more stories. 

We are focusing on black American female “firsts”. We have talked about outstanding women in education. Then we related the stories of Black Female writers – Sojourner Truth (19th century) and Phillis Wheatley, (18th century). For the nineteenth century we looked at the stories of three more “firsts” – Harriet Wilson, first published author of a novel, Hannah Crafts, only known narrative written by a female fugitive slave, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, first female to teach at Union Seminary.

Many of these women have been forgotten. I am happy to bring the stories of their lives back for us to appreciate. One thing the three women in this week’s stories have in common- they were forgotten even in their own lifetimes. Their work was not recognized for its greatness. Now at last there are plenty of publications with their stories, and plenty of pictures of their work on the internet and we can give them the honor they deserve for their talents.

There have been hundreds of great black female artists. Of special note this week are three black female artists who fit into the category of “firsts” – Edmonia Lewis, sculptor (nineteenth century), Augusta Fells Savage, contributed to a World’s Fair (1892-1962), and Ann Lowe, first black woman in fashion design (1898-1981). 

Because we are talking about art and because their creations were underappreciated in their day, I will give a brief account of their lives and then post pictures of their amazing works. Many of these works are now in museums.

Edmonia Lewis “Wildfire” – Sculptor (1845-1907)

Edmonia Lewis was a double first as an accomplished female sculptor. She had both black and Native American heritage. Her father was a black man employed as a gentleman’s servant and her mother was a Chippewa Indian[1]. Apparently, it was her mother who named her “Wildfire”. Edmonia did not spend much time with her father. Instead, she lived with her mother’s tribe in New York state until she was orphaned at age 5. She continued to live with the Chippewas until she was 12. She learned to fish, make baskets, and embroider moccasins, selling her crafts to the tribe. 

Her brother “Sunrise” had left to mine gold in California. He had enough money to send her to school near Albany, New York. Then in 1859, “Wildfire” entered Oberlin College in Ohio and changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis. She preferred using her middle name throughout her life.

Although Oberlin promoted racial harmony, Edmonia became the center of a controversial incident. Two white women students accused her of poisoning them; subsequently some vigilantes attacked and beat her. A prominent lawyer, also of mixed black and Native American heritage defended her. She was exonerated. A year later she was accused of being a thief. Again, she was acquitted, but the college refused to let her graduate.

With her brother’s encouragement and financial support, Edmonia decided to move to Boston. There she met William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists. She also became acquainted with Edward Brackett, a famous portrait sculptor. Brackett became her mentor and helped her learn how to sculpt. He saw her talent and helped her set up her own studio. Soon Edmonia was establishing herself as a sculptor in Boston. She began to model portraits out of plaster and clay, many of which were anti-slavery leaders, or advocates for Native Americans. She made enough money to support herself from selling these portrait sculptures.

Wendell Phillips

After living in Boston, Edmonia traveled to England, Paris, and Florence. Eventually she set up her studio in Rome. This may seem like an odd choice, but there was an abundant marble supply and women especially were drawn to the Romans’ disregard of the sexist restrictions in America and England.

In her large studio near the Piazza Barberini, Edmonia began to work on larger marble sculptures. She was able to support herself by copying famous sculptures which she sold to American tourists. She also continued to take commissions for small portrait busts. 

Edmonia is especially remembered today for her sculptures that reflect her concern over slavery and racial oppression. While her largest and most powerful sculpture – The Death of Cleopatra  – was popular, Edmonia wanted to focus on telling the stories of the problems of blacks and Native Americans using her artistic abilities. Below are just two examples of her sculptures of Native Americans and Blacks.

Old Arrow Maker
Forever Free

We don’t know much about the end of Edmonia’s life. Stories are contradictory or confusing at best. She converted to Catholicism while in Rome in 1868. Her last commission reflected her faith – Adoration of the Magi. This work, like many others, was lost. Today only a photograph of the 5-foot-wide sculpture exists.

Adoration of the Magi, Photo

Augusta Fells Savage, Sculptor (1892-1962)

Augusta Fells Savage overcame the obstacles of racial prejudice, poverty and personal tragedies to become one of the nation’s most distinguished black artists. 

Augusta Fells Savage holding a figurine.

She was born in Florida on February 29, 1892. Her birthplace, Green Cove Springs, was an area that had much natural clay in the soil. As a child, Augusta made it one of her favorite toys. “At the mud pie age, I began to make ‘things’ instead of mud pies,” she said.[2] Unfortunately her father, a Methodist minister, disapproved. Later, when she was in high school, she sculpted an 18” statue of the Virgin Mary. Her father realized that she was talented, and he began to accept her work.

Augusta’s family moved to West Palm Beach around 1915 where there was no clay in the soil. She got her materials from a local potter. She fashioned some figures and entered them in a county fair. She won a prize, but more importantly she received the support of the fair’s superintendent, George Graham Currie. He encouraged her to study art even though in that day racial prejudice kept many black men and women out of college.

Augusta married three times. In 1907 she married John T. Moore and a year later she had a daughter, Irene. Augusta and Irene would remain close all their lives. John Moore died a few years later. Around 1915 she married James Savage, whom she divorced in the early 1920’s. She married again in October 1923 to a journalist, Robert L. Poston. He died in March 1924. 

Augusta’s art was not successful in Jacksonville, so she moved to New York. She got a job as an apartment caretaker and enrolled in Cooper Union where tuition was free. She studied with sculptor George Brewster. When she lost the apartment job, Cooper Union gave her a scholarship which met her living expenses. Within a few months word of her talent spread.

She did a portrait of W. E. B. DuBois, and it was so well received that other commissions followed including that of Marcus Garvey, a prominent black leader. Augusta was earning enough money now to support herself while she completed college. She finished the four-year course at Cooper Union in three years.

In 1923, the Palace of Fontainebleau announced a special summer program open to women artists. Augusta applied but was rejected because of her race. She went on a letter writing campaign which made headlines everywhere. The French group did not change their minds. However, one of the committee members, Herman MacNeil, admitted that he was ashamed of the ruling. He invited Augusta to work at his studio in Long Island and she accepted the offer.

Undeterred by the racial prejudice, Augusta continued to produce models and figures of ordinary people. Like Edmonia Lewis, Augusta was concerned with the plight of black people and her work reflects it. One of her most famous sculptors is entitled “Gamin”. She used a young boy from a street in Harlem as a model. It is said that in this “head made of clay” she “caught the vitality, the humanity, the tenderness, and the wisdom of a boy child who has lived in the streets.”[3]


Augusta’s fame spread. She got the opportunity to study abroad. She went to Paris for several years where she exhibited work at the Grand Palais. She studied sculpture and woodcarving. She received fellowships from Rosenwald and from the Carnegie Foundation to travel to other European countries.

In 1939 she was commissioned to create a sculpture for the World’s Fair. She was one of only four women and the only black woman to be honored with this invitation. The theme of the fair was “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a song known as the “Negro National Anthem.” Augusta created a large sculpture called The Harp. The sculpture is sixteen-feet-high and composed of black people of various sizes and ages. They lift their voices as the strings tapered from their heads to the base. A kneeling young black man offers the gift of music to the world. 

The Harp

The sculpture was cast in plaster and finished in black basalt (bronze was too costly). It was destroyed after the fair was over, but there were photographs made and many castings were made out of pot metal for souvenirs. It became Augusta’s most popular work. Apparently, some of the figurines are still extant.

Augusta operated a Salon of Contemporary Negro Art for a time. It eventually closed due to lack of funds. She eventually moved to a farm in the Catskill Mountains where she continued to produce art. She made infrequent trips to New York City to visit friends. When her health began to fail, she returned to New York City to live with Irene who cared for her until her death from cancer on March 26, 1962.

We are thankful that Augusta Fells Savage left us her art as a legacy for black American culture. And I am sorry it took so long for it to be recognized. Thankfully, the culture is changing, wonderful works of art by female black Americans are again being discovered and valued.

Ann Lowe, Fashion Design (1898-1981)

“I want to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.”    Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe was the first black woman to design dresses for “haute couture”. That is French for “high sewing” or “high dressmaking”. These dresses were creatively and individually designed, mostly for the wealthy. Her unique dresses were made of what were novel materials such as flowers, beadwork, and jewels. Her most famous creation was First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress for her marriage to then Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953.

Ann Lowe’s creativity in dress design
Ann Lowe designed Jacqueline’s Wedding Dress

By 1953 Ann had been sewing for many years. She started sewing at the age of six, helping her mother and grandmother who were doing custom sewing mostly for wealthy white Southerners. When Ann was sixteen her mother died. Ann took over the family business. She completed the work on two orders for the governor’s wife. She then moved to Florida where she continued to sew for prominent families. 

In 1917 she enrolled in a course in New York City in “couture” but because of Jim Crow laws she faced challenges. Ann had to take her courses in a separate room from the white students who didn’t want her in the same room. She was so talented however that the instructors used her sketches and drawings for the other students as the examples of the best designs. Ann studied hard and finished the course a year early. 

In 1928 Ann moved to Harlem. She was commissioned by such famous stores as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Henri Bendel (The store was in business from 1895-2019). By 1950, Ann’s reputation for her work was well-known, and she was sought after by high society families. She opened her own salon, called Ann Lowe’s Gowns, for the Manhattan social elite. Her fashions began to appear in magazines such as VogueVanity FairTown & Country, and the Saturday Evening Post. Later Ann would be featured in the National Social Directory of 1966 and in a 1966 copy of Who’s Who of American WomenEbony magazine did a six-page article on Ann in 1966. 

Sadly, though news traveled about this exquisite fashion designer so did the fact that Ann never charged enough for her gowns. It is unclear as to the reason why. Perhaps Ann felt like she just happy to see her gowns on so many famous and beautiful women. Others have suggested that in order to keep her position as a Black woman in society she allowed the wealthy patrons to take advantage of her. While other famous houses of fashion received invitations to high-profile events, Ann did not. 

Another slight (unforgiveable in my opinion) occurred at the Academy Awards in 1947. Olivia de Havilland wore an Ann Lowe gown when de Havilland received her Oscar for Best Actress in the film To Each His Own. Ms. De Havilland, like many of Ann’s clients removed the tag from the back of the dress with Ann’s name. Ann did not complain. She was more satisfied with her beautiful creations and the knowledge that famous people were wearing them than she was in making a profit. Her son was managing things for her and keeping the business going.

Ann did not always receive credit for her work.

In 1958 Ann’s son died in a car accident. She had no one to keep her books. The materials for her gowns were very expensive and Ann never charged enough to recover the costs. Within a short time, she was in debt and declared bankruptcy in 1962. 

Tragically this wonderful, talented woman, like Edmonia Lewis and Augusta Savage, was forgotten in her own time. Today however you can see pictures of her creations on the internet. Also some of her gowns are on display at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, The Cincinnati Art Museum, and The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). 

[1] Here again, as an author, I have to decide what terms to use when speaking of the various racial groups. I will use the historical term that the sources are using to avoid confusion. When speaking of indigenous peoples, or tribes. I will use the terms “Indian” or “Native American” if that is the historical term. I have many friends who have tribal heritage that they are very proud of. I want to honor that, but I don’t think I should rewrite history.

[2] “Augusta Savage: An Autobiography.” Crisis 36 (August 1929). P. 269.

[3] Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. “Augusta Savage.” Six Black Masters of American Art. New York: Doubleday, 1972. P. 90.

Black Women Writers and Speakers

This year we have been going on a journey through the last few centuries to rediscover the stories of many amazing American Black Women. So far we have talked about the lives of four Black women who were the first to earn their PhD’s and a number women who were outstanding in their fields. 

Last time we related the stories of two early writers – Sojourner Truth (nineteenth century) and Phillis Wheatley, (eighteenth century). These women were also active as speakers bringing to light the abuse of slavery. We will continue for many months to relate stories of Black Women in America with a special focus on Black Female Firsts.

This week we will continue with three nineteenth-century Black women writers – all Firsts – Harriet Wilson, first published author of a novel, Hannah Crafts, only known narrative written by a female fugitive slave, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, first female to teach at Union Seminary. 

All of these women bravely overcame challenges to rise above the prejudice of their day to give us thought-provoking and encouraging stories. 

Harriet Wilson (1825-1900)

Harriet Wilson is considered the first African American of either gender to publish a novel. Her novel was published anonymously in 1859. We cringe at the title – Our Nig, or sketches from the Life of a Free Black. How horrible!! But hopefully we can learn from the past. Society has progressed somewhat in a fairer treatment of black people, including how we talk to and about them. From “nigger” to “Negro” to “Colored” to “African American” to “Black” gains have been made in justice for black people. The fact that we can see how belittling the older terms were shows that we have made some progress, but it is too slow. It’s time to make sure we treat all people with dignity and respect.

That is why I am writing this series on remarkable Black Women in America. By raising awareness of their achievements, the prejudice against them should diminish. When we remember how much opposition there was to blacks and women in the nineteenth century the story of Harriet Wilson demonstrates courage and perseverance. It was illegal to teach blacks to read or write. Nevertheless, women like Harriet put their thoughts and feelings down in poetry, stories, autobiographies, narratives, and novels in spite of the prejudice.

Harriet was born a free mixed-race “person of color” in Milford, New Hampshire on March 15, 1825. Her mother was Irish, and her father was black. Her father died while she was just a small child and her mother abandoned her. She worked as an indentured servant to the Hayward family to support herself until she was eighteen years old. Researchers have discovered that Harriet was physically and mentally abused in their home. The family called her Nig. 

She married an escaped slave, Thomas Wilson in 1851 in Milford. Thomas abandoned her for a time, saying he had never been a slave but used the story to get support from the abolitionists. Harriet was pregnant and had to move to a poor farm to care for herself and her son, George Mason Wilson, born in 1852. Thomas returned and took his family back. He worked as a sailor but died soon. Harriet decided to get a job but couldn’t make enough money to support her and her son, so she left him at the poor farm where he died at the age of 7 in 1860.

In 1859 Harriet wrote Our Nig or sketches from the Life of a Free Black and copyrighted her work. It was published anonymously by a publishing firm in Boston. Our Nig tells the story of an African American woman, named Frado (short for Alfrado) who grew up in tragic circumstances. The story matches Harriet’s own life – a child who was left by her parents to be raised by a wealthy New Hampshire family. This story is particularly interesting because it shows that racial prejudice was just as strong in the North as in the South. Though Frado was not a slave she certainly wasn’t free either. Harriet wanted to document the injustice for indentured black servants by white racists in the North. 

In her later years, Harriet earned her living as a housekeeper and/or seamstress for wealthy people in New England. There is no evidence that she wrote anything else for publication. Harriet died on June 28, 1900, in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Harriet’s story clearly demonstrates the racial prejudice that existed in the nineteenth century even in the North and how it manifested itself in treatment for African Americans. Though it is over 150 years since a war was fought to end slavery, prejudice and unequal treatment for black people has continued. We must continue to seek justice for all people.

Hannah (Bond) Crafts (1830’s – 1880’s)

There is some mystery surrounding Hannah Bond (Crafts) and her novel. But if Hannah, a fugitive slave, did write The Bondwoman’s Narrative, then her book is very unique as the first one by a female fugitive slave. It is also one of the few that were unedited by white editors. 

Hannah was born into slavery. She never knew her parents. As a girl she was a caretaker for other slave children. She befriended a neighbor, an older white woman named Aunt Hetty. Aunt Hetty taught Hannah to read the Bible. Hannah loved learning to read, especially the Bible and followed its teaching all her life.

The next family that owned Hannah originally employed her as a ladies’ maid. John Hill Wheeler bought her for his wife, Ellen Hill. At some point they dismissed her from the house and told her to go work in the fields. This was backbreaking work and Hannah decided to escape. She did so, traveling north and settling in New Jersey. She married a minister, Thomas Vincent and became a Sunday School teacher. 

Hannah wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, Fugitive Slave from North Carolina in 1957. It is a moving account of the life of a slave in the early nineteenth century. Like Harriet Wilson, Hannah pointed out the inherent injustice in racial prejudice.

We are not sure what she did with her manuscript, but it was found years later in a private citizen’s attic in New Jersey. Many years after that, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – professor of African American literature and history at Harvard University purchased the manuscript in 2001 and published it in 2002. Scholars validated the details of Hannah’s life, and the book became a bestseller. 

Several of the main themes in the book are freedom and loyalty. Hannah asks deeply philosophical questions about life and death. Clearly, she had an exceptional intellect and a thought life very different from most slaves. Note her wisdom in the following quote:

“At finding ourselves, and without having committed any crime, thus introduced into one of the legal fortresses of a country celebrated throughout the world for the freedom, equality, and magnanimity of its laws, I could not help reflecting on the strange ideas of right and justice that seemed to have usurped a place in public opinion, since the mere accident of birth, and what persons were the lease capable of changing or modifying was made a reason for punishing and imprisoning them.” 
― Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative

Hannah enjoyed other cultural activities such reading, art, and painting. She was thankful to God for the privilege of freedom of thought and the ability to read and learn. What a blessing for her to be able to satisfy the longings of her intellectual ability. What a blessing for us that she wrote down her story for others.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

Unlike Harriet and Hannah, Frances was born into a free family. She was born in 1825 in Baltimore. Sadly, she was not quite three years old when her mother died. She was raised by her uncle, Reverend William Watkins who was active in the civil rights movement. He had founded a school for African American Negro Youth. Frances was educated there until age thirteen.

Frances then went out to earn her living. She worked for the Armstrong’s as a caretaker for their children. Mr. Armstrong owned a bookstore and Frances was allowed to take advantage of that. Mr. Armstrong encouraged her in her writing. By the time she was in her early twenties, Frances was writing poetry and novels. Her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves was published around 1846.

In 1850, Frances moved to Ohio to teach at Union Seminary. She became the first women to teach at that seminary in spite of the protests of many of the male professors. She left in 1852 to teach in York, Pennsylvania. Living in a house that was on the Underground Railroad, Frances became determined to do something about the plights of the escaping slaves. She quit her teaching job and became a lecturer for the abolitionist cause. 

In 1858, Frances wrote one of her most famous poems about the injustice to African Americans. Here is the first stanza (of 8 total):

Bury Me in a Free Land

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill; 
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.[1]

Besides poetry, Frances wrote about many topics including equality in race, gender, and education for youth. She was characterized as a noble Christian woman and considered one of the most well-read women of her day. Her faith led her to be active in many causes for justice.

Frances married Fenton Harper in 1860. They had one daughter, Mary, in 1862. Frances retired somewhat from public life to raise her daughter, but she never stopped writing and supporting social reform, including racism and women’s suffrage. Fenton died in 1864. Frances became active in speaking and lecturing again. Besides speaking and writing she worked with the American Equal rights Association, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the YMCA, the Notional Congress of Colored Women, and the National Association of Colored, of which she was a founding member. Frances continued her fight for freedom and justice until her death in 1911 in Philadelphia. 

Harriet, Hannah, and Frances devoted their talents to telling the story of the injustice to black Americans. Our society has changed a lot since then, but we still have an unacceptable amount of racial prejudice. My prayer is that the message these women left us will be instrumental in promoting justice for all citizens.

[1] Here is the whole poem:

Bury Me in a Free Land

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill; 
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves. 

Black Women Writers and Speakers

During Black History Month, we related the stories of four women who were the first Black women to earn their PhD’s. Then we looked at two more amazing women who were outstanding in their fields, Mary W. Jackson, first female engineer at NASA and Mary J. Patterson, first Black woman to earn a BA in education.

Last week we continued with our series on “Black Women in America” by recounting the stories of great black female educators. Sarah Jane Woodson Early, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown made major contributions to quality education for black students. 

Many of the women we have covered are “firsts”. Black women faced a lot of obstacles in their paths to obtain equal opportunities. The seven women we have studied so far were not trying to achieve better things for Black people so they could be remembered; they simply used their God-given gifts in a courageous way to persevere in what they believed was true justice for all races. 

This week we will tell the stories of two remarkable Black women speakers and writers who were also activists – Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley.

Sojourner Truth (1797?-1883)

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

Sojourner Truth

The date of birth of Isabella Baumfree, known to us as Sojourner Truth, is not certain, but many think it was around 1797. She was born in Ulster County, New York to parents who were slaves. The state of New York did not give emancipation to the slaves until 1827, so Isabella was a slave until her mature adulthood. Isabella had many last names over her lifetime because she had a number of masters. In those days slaves took the last name of their master to show his ownership of them.

Isabella’s family lived on a Dutch plantation and she grew up speaking Dutch. At around age nine, she was sold to another family. The new family only spoke English and so there were frequent miscommunications. They beat her cruelly until she learned English, but she always spoke with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.

Isabella went through many trials until she finally ran away with her youngest daughter, Sophia who was only an infant. She had intended to stay with her owner until her emancipation, but he took advantage of her. He had promised her that he would free her one year before the New York law went into effect if she would render him faithful service until that time. When the time came, he reneged on his promise. She now faced one more year of harsh treatment. She was so angry that she determined to take what was justly her own. 

She asked God to help her escape. She thought that she heard a voice telling her to leave in the early hours of the morning, so she did. Then she asked for direction and was given a vision of a house that she actually found later on her journey. There were some kindly Quakers living there. They invited her to stay. When her master caught up with her and tried to take her back, these kindly Christians, Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, paid the price of her last year’s service and so he went home with his $20. Isabella remained with these good people a long time.

It was during this time that Isabella underwent a life changing experience. She had always had faith that God was real, but now she began to sense God’s overwhelming presence. There came to her “the true revelation of the character and attributes of God, and of the office of Jesus Christ as the Mediator and Savior; and the converted Sojourner became from that time henceforward one of the most faithful, consistent, and zealous of Christian disciples.” (“A Brief Biography of Sojourner Truth” by Harriet Carter and John W. Cromwell). 

At some point, Isabella wanted to change her name in order to leave behind all of the associations of her old life. She believed that the Lord gave her the new name of Sojourner. Later, a Quaker woman whom she met asked her for her name. 

She responded, “Sojourner.”
“Sojourner what?” asked the lady.

Sojourner had not troubled over having only a Christian name, but since it seemed good to have a surname she asked the Lord for help. “And it came in that moment, like a voice, just as true as God is true, ‘Sojourner Truth.’ And I leaped for joy. ‘Why,’ said I, ‘thank you, God; that is a good name. Thou art my last master, and thy name is Truth; and Truth shall be my abiding name till I die.'”

Sojourner wanted to do something to help her people. Among other things she tried to get the United States government to give the colored people (as they were called in those days) some land out west. She believed that they could become self-supporting. This dream never materialized. But Sojourner did many other good things. She was an active worker in the temperance movement. She also fought for women’s rights.

She was nearly six feet tall and strongly built. She had a deep voice and when she spoke people listened. She had been blessed with native intelligence and was quick witted. She could debate opponents on issues point by point with irrefutable answers. One of her most famous speeches, which has been preserved for us is – “Ain’t I a Woman?” This was given at a women’s rights convention in Ohio in 1851. Here is a part of the speech as printed in the local paper at the time:

“And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunders, she asked ‘And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash a well! And a’n’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?…….Den dey talks ’bout dis ting in de head; what dis dey call it?” (“Intellect,” whispered some one near.) “Dat’s it, honey. What’s dat got to do wid womin’s rights or nigger’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?’ And she pointed her significant finger, and sent a keen glance at the minister who had made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.

“If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder (and she glanced her eye over the platform) ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let ’em.” Long-continued cheering greeted this. “Bleeged to ye for hearin’ on me, and now old Sojourner han’t got nothin’ more to say.”

Amid roars of applause, she returned to her corner, leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude.”

There are many other incidents that could be related about this fascinating woman. She is to be admired not only for her courage, but also for the way she rose above her circumstances. Sojourner had no “book learning” but she was a power at meetings; there was no tongue more feared than hers. She did not accomplish as much for her people as she would have liked, but it was not her fault. Change was slow. Many other black women were freed and went on to poor or mediocre lives, but not Sojourner. 

“People ask me,” she once said, “how I came to live so long and keep my mind; and I tell them it is because I think of the great things of God; not the little things.” She was truly a remarkable woman.

In 2020 the first-ever monument to real women was unveiled in Manhattan’s Central Park.[1] The sculptor, Meredith Bergmann was intent on including a black woman. She said, “My hope is that all people, especially girls and boys, will be inspired by this scene of women of different races, different religious backgrounds and different economic status working together to change the world.”[2]

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Thou, Lord, whom I behold with glory crown’d,
By what sweet name, and in what tuneful sound
Wilt thou be prais’d? Seraphic pow’rs are faint
Infinite love and majesty to paint.
To thee let all their grateful voices raise,
And saints and angels join their song of praise.

(From: “On the death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age”. Phillis Wheatley)

Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in West Africa, probably somewhere between present-day Gambia and Ghana. She was kidnapped and brought to Boston. Phillis Wheatley was not her birth name, but the name she was given when she arrived at the home of her new owners, John and Susanna Wheatley. The ship that brought her over to America in 1761 was the Phillis, a slave ship owned by Timothy Fitch. At the time, approximately 1000 of Boston’s more than 15,000 residents were slaves.

John Wheatley bought Phillis to be a servant to his wife. Phillis was a sickly child, but Susanna recognized her agile and intelligent mind and gave her an extraordinary education for any woman of that time, let alone a slave. The Wheatley’s were devout Christians, and we are not sure when Phillis became a believer, but it was very early in her life. She was baptized at the Congregationalist Old South Church on August 18, 1771.

Phillis learned English, the Bible, Christianity, Latin, ancient history, geography, and classical literature. She was a quick learner. Within sixteen months Phillis was proficient enough in the English language to be able to read even “the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings” according to the Wheatley’s. Phillis especially loved poetry. Her poems and letters show that she was familiar with Alexander Pope, John Milton, William Shenstone, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer.  How many fourteen-year-olds in our day can read the writings of these classical giants?

Though Phillis was treated very kindly by Susanna, she was still a slave. Her poetry would reflect thoughts on slavery, but also on the kindness of her mistress, whom she loved very much. Phillis’ poetry would reflect the Christianity that she had learned from Susannah.

Phillis’ first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin”, was a tale of two men who nearly drowned at sea and their steady faith in God. Published by the Newport Mercury in 1767, this poem reflected Phillis’ strong faith in God and would anticipate the Christian piety that would characterize most of the poetry that she would write.

For the next several years, Phillis continued to write and publish poems. Slavery and her own experience were the topics of several poems. Though she longed for an end to the cruel practice of slavery, she was able to put into perspective the difference between physical slavery and spiritual slavery. She understood that eternal life is forever and life on this earth is short. She was grateful to God for rescuing her soul:

“On being brought from Africa to America”

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Phillis’ first volume of poetry was published in London in 1773. Later in her life she hoped to publish a second volume but was unable to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately for us, that volume is lost. Her beloved mistress, Susanna died on March 3, 1774. Phillis continued to live in the Wheatley house until John Wheatley died in 1778. Phillis was effectively, if not legally freed.

Phillis struggled to support herself by selling copies of her poetry. She met and married John Peters, a free black, on April 1, 1778. At first this marriage seemed to be a sound one, but it deteriorated. We are not sure what all happened, but apparently Peters changed jobs frequently and was often in debt. He seems to have been conceited as well. John and Phillis had three children all of whom died early. The third child died at the same time as Phillis on December 5, 1784. On December 8 they were buried together in an unmarked grave.

John sold Phillis’ manuscripts and books to cover his debts. The first American edition of her “Poems” was finally published in Philadelphia in1786.

Phillis Wheatley’s poetry continued to be used as evidence for the humanity, equality, and literary talents of Black Americans. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, her place in the developing tradition of literature by people of African descent is secure as the mother of African-American literature. No one should ever doubt that talent and intellect are not a function of color or race but are gifts of God to any of His children no matter where they are from. We are thankful that God blessed us with Phillis Wheatley. May we learn from her life to have confidence in our callings no matter our circumstances.[3]

[1] Previously, statues included Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose and Juliet from “Romeo and Juliet”. In the 167-year history of the park no real women had been depicted, let alone a black woman.

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/central-park-unveils-statue-womens-rights-pioneers-equality-day/

[3] You can read her letters and poems for free at the Project Gutenberg website. 


Black Women Educators

In February, Black History Month, we told the stories of four incredible black women who earned their PhD’s. Last week we looked at two more amazing women who were outstanding in their fields, Mary W. Jackson, first female engineer at NASA and Mary J. Patterson, first Black woman to earn a BA in education.

This week we continue with our series on “Black Women in America” by recounting the stories of great black female educators. Many of our stories over the coming months will feature “firsts”. Black women faced a lot of obstacles in their paths to obtain equal opportunities. Our first six stories in this series are all about courageous Black women Firsts and these next stories are no exception. Sarah Jane Woodson Early is considered to be the first black woman college educator. Mary McLeod Bethune was a first in many areas of education especially for poor blacks. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was the first black woman to be elected to the national board of the YWCA among other things. Each of these women combined faith and fortitude to make life better for untold thousands of black children and adults.

Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825-1907) First Professor

Sarah was born to Jemima and Thomas Woodson in Chillicothe, Ohio on November 15, 1825. She was the fifth daughter and the youngest of the Woodson’s eleven children. Thomas and Jemima had moved to Ohio in 1821 from Virginia where they had received their freedom from slavery. Ohio was a free state and many blacks moved there. 

Thomas helped to found the African American[1] community of Berlin Crossroads, Ohio in 1830. Sarah grew up in that black farming community. With the freedom they enjoyed in Ohio the Woodsons founded their own school, stores, and the first black Methodist church west of the Alleghenies. In 1839, Sarah, her parents and several siblings joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Thomas and two of Sarah’s brothers were ministers there.

The Woodson believed strongly in education for everyone including their daughters. Oberlin College accepted not only blacks but women, so Sarah enrolled in 1833. She taught at several schools over the years while in college. She graduated in 1856 becoming one of the first black women to graduate with a BA in education. In 1858, Sarah accepted a position at Wilberforce University[2] to teach English.

In those days women often did not get the recognition for their accomplishments that they deserved. At first at Wilberforce Sarah was not given the title of professor but was a member of the faculty. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that she was the first African American (black) college instructor in the United States. 

For a number of years, she taught at many schools. In 1866 she was re-hired by Wilberforce to teach English and Latin. She also served as lady principal and matron. Later that year, Sarah gave a speech entitled, “Address to Youth to the Ohio Colored Teachers Association”.[3] Sarah was a dedicated teacher who believed in the principle of education and self-help. Sarah encouraged the young people to get careers in education and the sciences to improve life for themselves and others. In 1868, Sarah left Wilberforce to teach at a girls’ school in North Carolina.

That year, Sarah at age 42 married Jordan Early, an AME preacher. Jordan had been married and widowed. He and his wife, Louisa Carter Early had 8 children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. Louisa died in 1862. The Early’s had sent their children to Wilberforce and that is where Jordan likely met Sarah. Having married late in life, Sarah had no children. Feeling very dedicated as a preacher’s wife, Sarah helped Jordan Early with his ministry for nearly twenty years. Later she wrote a book about him, Life and Labors of Rev. Jordan W. Early, One of the Pioneers of African Methodism in the West and South (1894). 

Sarah retired in 1888 having served as principal of four large schools and taught over six thousand children. She and Jordan moved to Nashville where she turned her attention to reform movements. Sarah became involved in the Colored Division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), serving a four-year term as national superintendent. She traveled many miles giving over 100 speeches in five states encouraging black women to get involved in their communities. She also spoke in churches, colleges, prisons, and at least two national church conventions.  

Sarah was named Representative Woman of the Year at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. She was included by Lawson Scruggs in his famous work Women of Distinction.[4]

Sarah served her whole life as a pioneer and champion for black education, especially for women. Sarah Jane Woodson Early died on August 15, 1907, age 82, in Nashville, Tennessee. She was buried in Nashville’s’ Greenwood Cemetery. 

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) 

Through love and faith and determination I have been persistently facing obstacles, small and large, and I have made them stepping stones upon which to rise.    Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune is remembered as an educator and an activist. Mary was born with three strikes against her – she was poor, black, and female. This indomitable woman who believed that “Love, not hate, has been the fountain of my fullness” spent her life building a better world.

Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina. This was during the period of ‘reconstruction’ in the South. Tempers often ran as hot as the weather and as the nation adjusted, unfair anti-black violence escalated. Through it all many black men and women maintained their faith in God. There was a strong belief that education would raise the status of black people in the perceptions of others and would result in better jobs. 

Originally Mary trained at Moody Bible Institute (as it is called today) to become a missionary to Africa. It seems incredible to us now, but she was told that black women were not allowed to go on the mission field. This didn’t stop Mary for long. Realizing that this setback was only a ‘stepping stone upon which to rise’ she put her heart and soul into educating poor black children, starting with girls. Mary believed that as the mothers in the homes, girls would grow up to have a profound impact on their children’s education. 

Mary married Albert McLeod Bethune in 1898. They had one son. Sadly, due to disagreements that couldn’t be reconciled Mary and Albert ended the marriage in 1907.

Mary founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida in 1904. She started with only five students, but the school grew to over 250 students in only a few years. Mary remained the president and leader for many years. In 1923 the school combined with the Cookman Institute for Men. The newly combined school, called the Bethune-Cookman College, was one of the few places where black students could get a college degree.

Besides her important work at the school, Mary also became politically involved. She was president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women for many years.  Mary worked with presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to improve life for black citizens. She served on many committees and started up her own organization – the National Council of Negro Women. In 1936 President Roosevelt appointed her to be the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. In this position Mary was able to help young people find jobs. At this time Mary also served as an advisor to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1942 Mary retired from Bethune-Cookman college. She moved to Washington DC and lived there for several years. She was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the early 1950’s, President Truman appointed her to be the official delegate to Liberia for the inauguration of their new president. 

Eventually Mary returned to Florida to retire. She passed away on May 18, 1955.

Before she died Mary wrote “My Last Will and Testament.” She wanted to leave her people with a legacy of serving. Here are her “bequests”.

            I leave you love.

I leave you hope.

            I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another.

            I leave you a thirst for education. 

            I leave you a respect for the uses of power. (This power should be placed on the side of human justice.)

            I leave you faith.

            I leave you racial dignity.

            I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men.

            I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people. 

Faith Courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility – these are needed today as never before. We must cultivate them and use them as tools for our task of completing the establishment of equality for the Negro. 

If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood and Love.

In 1973, eighteen years after her passing, Mary McLeod Bethune was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1974, a seventeen-foot bronze sculpture commemorating Mary’s work in education was erected in Lincoln Park, Washington DC. It is the first statue ever dedicated on federal land to honor either a black or a woman. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 1985. The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site was opened in 1994.

I found a wonderful video production of Mary’s life on YouTube. It is in three parts totaling a little over 26 minutes. It gives great historical background and contains many contemporary photos. I highly recommend it!!


1. Mary McLeod Bethune Part One desktop, January 24, 2009, Brian Stewart 9:42

2. Mary McLeod Bethune Part Two desktop, 9:46

3. Mary McLeod Bethune Part Three desktop, 6:44

Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883-1961)

Charlotte (born Lottie) Hawkins Brown was a pioneer in education and race relations. She maintained a love for her native state, North Carolina all her life. The granddaughter of slaves, she was born on a farm near Henderson to Caroline Frances Hawkins on June 11, 1883. Her father has not been identified. Both her mother and grandmother were strong advocates of education. This was well for Lottie who was a bright and gifted child. Her mother recognized her qualities and taught her to read and to appreciate art and music. All of these advantages would later help Lottie in her future as one of the foremost educators of her day. 

Lottie was a high achiever at Cambridge English High School. Her talents in art and music were developed there. She was involved in many other activities at home and in church. At age fourteen she demonstrated her leadership abilities with the organization of the kindergarten department in the Sunday school at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge. Lottie took a job caring for two infants to earn money for her graduation. While pushing the baby carriage with one hand, she was reading a selection from the Roman author Virgil in her Latin book with the other hand. Alice Freeman Palmer, president of Wellesley College, observed this and spoke to Lottie. Alice became a benefactor and influenced Lottie for the rest of her life. 

When she was ready to graduate, Lottie changed her name to Charlotte Eugenia Hawkins because she thought “Lottie” looked too ordinary for her diploma. She desired to go to college though her mother felt that her high school education was enough. Charlotte had been inspired by Booker T. Washington to use her good education to help black people in the South. Charlotte compromised with her mother and attended a two-year normal school. Alice Freeman Palmer paid her expenses.

Eager to help black children in the South, Charlotte went to a rural school in Sedalia, near Greensboro, in 1901. The school was in a run-down church and Charlotte began with only fifty poor students. She settled in an attic room over the parsonage of the Bethany Congregational Church. Her salary was thirty dollars a month and Charlotte spent much of it on clothes and school supplies for the children.

The school only lasted one term, but the townspeople wanted Charlotte to stay. She postponed her own education and went to work building a school for the community. She raised some money in New England and established the Palmer Institute. Alice Palmer died in 1902 and Charlotte changed the name of the school to the Palmer Memorial Institute. The first class met in a remodeled blacksmith’s shed with the support of the community.

Many children who were eager for an education walked for miles to attend Palmer because it was the only school in a large area. If they could not afford to pay for the classes, they were given extra jobs at the school growing food. Every student had chores because Charlotte believed that working gave them a sense of responsibility. 

In 1911 Charlotte met and married Edward Sumner Brown. Edward lived in Sedalia with Charlotte but left a year later. He and Charlotte continued to correspond for a while, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1915. They had no children, but Charlotte raised her brother Mingo’s four children when their mother died. She also took in her Aunt Ella Brice’s three children when Ella’s musical career kept her away from home. All seven children graduated from the Palmer Memorial Institute and went on the higher education. Interestingly, one of the Hawkins children, Maria went to Hollywood to pursue a musical career. There she met and married the famous Nat “King” Cole.

In the 1920’s the school concentrated less on the agricultural and vocational components and began to emphasize the secondary and postsecondary components. The school focused on cultural education, highlighting drama, music, art, math, literature, foreign languages, education and government. Through the following years Charlotte built the Palmer Memorial Institute into one of the leading preparatory schools for black children in the country. As the school grew, Charlotte achieved state and national recognition. 

In 1927 Charlotte was able to return to her studies. She attended Wellesley while lecturing at Smith, Wellesley, Mr. Holyoke, Radcliffe, Howard University, Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute. She received six honorary degrees including honorary doctorates from Lincoln University, (1937), Wilberforce University (1939) and Howard University (1944). 

Charlotte was also active in her community. A biographer said of her, “Year by year, Charlotte Hawkins Brown became a more vital source of their inspiration and their guiding spirit.”[5]  She often spoke out against the unfair treatment of blacks in North Carolina and across the country. She supported women’s rights including the right to vote. 

She was especially fervent about improving race relations in the South. She was a charter member of Southern Commission for Interracial Cooperation; an executive board member of the Southern Region of the Urban league; a member of eh Negro Business League; and a member of the home nursing council of the American Red Cross. As one of Charlotte’s “firsts”, she was the first black to be appointed by Governor Clyde R. Hoey of North Carolina to the state Council of Defense in 1940. 

Charlotte was the first black woman to be elected to the National Board of the YWCA. She was president of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in North Carolina where she led to the establishment of a state-funded home for delinquent black girls.

During her fifty-year career Charlotte saw many students graduate from Palmer Memorial Institute. She resigned in 1952 and was succeeded by a former student, Wilhelmina M. Crosson. Charlotte stayed on as financial director until 1955. She began to develop health problems and died in 1961. 

The Palmer Memorial Institute closed ten years later. Today the campus is the site of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. Here is another “first” for Charlotte as she was the first black woman to be honored by North Carolina with a state historic site.

Truly this tough and resourceful woman who helped to lead North Carolina through changes in interracial understanding that led to better race relations deserves to be remembered and honored by the people of her beloved North Carolina. As the memorial on her plaque at her gravesite says, Charlotte Hawkins Brown’s memory continues to “lend inspiration always to this place and its people.”

[1] I know that the correct term for today is “black” but until recently “African American” was the acceptable term. When I am writing stories, I have to choose whether or not to use the historical term. Sometimes I will use the term that is historical as in the report above, because that is what earlier people expected. Historical terms include “Negro”, “Colored”, “African American” and “Black”. Someone should write a history of terminology focusing on why the term has changed in different eras. I think it would be very enlightening.

[2] Wilberforce was named after William Wilberforce a famous English abolitionist. It is the oldest private historically black college or university in the United States. 

[3] The term in use at the time for black people was “colored”.

[4] Dr. Lawson A. Scruggs. Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character. (Raleigh, NC. 1893)

[5] Constance Hill Marteena. The Lengthening Shadow of a Woman: A Biography of Charlotte Hawkins Brown. (Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1977) p. 55

As we celebrate Women’s History Month we are focusing on Black American Women.

A Tale of Two Mary’s

Last month we took time to celebrate Black History Month by relating the stories of some incredible black American women. Obtaining a PhD is a great accomplishment, so we told the stories of four black women who were the first to receive a PhD in American universities. They were:

1.  Eva Beatrice Dykes for being the first black woman in America to complete the requirements for a PhD. Her degree was in English Philology, and she received her degree at her commencement on June 22, 1921. 
2. Georgiana Rose Simpson received a PhD in German Philology on June 14, 1921 – just over 100 years ago.
3. Sadie T. M. Alexander received her PhD in economics on June 15, 1921.
4. Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes – the first black woman to receive a PhD in mathematics (1943).

We will now continue with our series on “Black Women in America”. It is time to recognize that black women have always had strong abilities. They have been denied opportunities unfairly. My prayer is that many, many more black women will be given the chance to pursue education, careers, and all of their dreams. 

Since we started our series on “Black Women in America” by looking at the area of education we will add more names of outstanding black female educators. This week we will feature two more “Firsts” – Mary W. Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer and Mary J. Patterson, the first black women to receive a BA degree. 

Mary W. Jackson (April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005)

Mary grew up in Hampton, Virginia. She graduated from high school with highest honors. She then attended Hampton Institute where she graduated in 1942 with bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science. She taught math at a black school in Maryland for a year and then returned home. She went through several career changes including receptionist and bookkeeper.  She had a son, Levi while at home. She then took a job as an Army Secretary at Fort Monroe. At last, she found her place at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. She began work in the segregated West Area Computing section in 1951. Her supervisor was Dorothy Vaughan.[1] She worked there for two years. 

Mary then began working for Kazimierz Czarnecki. Her job was conducting experiments in a 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. This 60,000-horsepower wind tunnel was capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Frustrated and unhappy about the discrimination against blacks in the workplace, Mary almost resigned. But Mary had proven herself to be very capable and so Czarnecki encouraged her to enter a training program which would give her a chance to upgrade her standing from mathematician to engineer. 

Mary had to take graduate level classes from the University of Virginia. They were held at a high school that did not accept black students in their classes. Mary had the courage to get the special permission needed.  She took the classes and completed the courses. She earned her promotion and in 1958 at the age of 37 she became NASA’s first female engineer. In fact, since this was taking place in the 1950’s it is very possible that Mary was the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. 

For nearly two decades Mary wrote many papers concerning studies of data that helped to improve US planes. She co-authored her first paper – “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.” Mary achieved the most senior rank in the engineering department that was allowed to her. Unable to break the “glass ceiling” she decided on another career change. She was taking a demotion but decided to become a human resources administrator which she did until her retirement in 1985. She used her position as the manager of the Langley Federal Women’s Program to help other women and minorities to advance their careers. Her work had a major impact on the improvement of the treatment of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists. 

Mary retired in 1985. In her lifetime she had received many honors including the Apollo Group Achievement Award. She had been named the volunteer of the year in 1976. She was also involved in the United Way, Girl Scouts, and the National Technical Association (the oldest technical organization in the United States founded to help blacks). She died in 2005. She received her medal posthumously.

In 2016 a movie was made to tell the story of the black women who worked at NASA who were largely responsible for the safe flight of astronaut John Glenn. It focused on three of the women and was called “Hidden Figures”. It starred Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae. It is finally time after 55 years that Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are recognized for their achievements. Though things have changed a lot since the 1940’s and 50’s, there is still a struggle for full racial and gender equality. The stories of these women will go a long way to erase the idea that women, especially black women are inferior.  

The movie is great, and I hope you will see it. My only disappoint was that the tremendous religious faith of these three wonderful women was not presented more. The women all just wanted to succeed and rose above the prejudice against them. These women are an inspiration!

These women were true pioneers and are an inspiration to everyone especially black women. Thanks to their unselfish and courageous efforts black women today can enter all fields of enterprise including mathematics, science, and technology.

Mary J. Patterson (1840-1894) – BA in Education 

Mary Jane Patterson was the first black woman to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Education. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1862. 

We don’t have very much information about Mary’s early life, but we believe that she was born into slavery around 1840 in Raleigh North Caroline. Her parents were Henry Irving Patterson and Emmeline Eliza (Taylor) Patterson. She was probably the oldest of at least seven children. Henry was a bricklayer and plasterer. Around 1852 he obtained his freedom and moved his family to Oberlin, Ohio where there was a large population of free black families. 

Many of the Oberlin families hoped to send their children to college. In 1857 Mary finished a preparatory course with that in mind. However, she sought to enter the four-year “gentlemen’s course” rather than the two-year course for women at Oberlin. She earned her Bachelor of Arts with high honors in 1862.

Mary then spent a year teaching in Chillicothe, Ohio. When she was 22, she went to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for five years.[2] After that she went to Washington, D.C. to teach at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth. This school became known as M Street High School. Several of the women we have already talked about on this post either graduated from there or taught there.[3]It was a great way for black youth to gain opportunities for higher education.

In Washington, D.C. she lived at 1532 15th Street Northwest with her sisters, Emma and Chanie (both of whom graduated from Oberlin’s two-year course for women) and her brother John (graduated from Oberlin in 1867). All four siblings became teachers. Mary’s parents joined them in the 1880’s. 

In 1871, Mary became the principal of the high school for one year. She then moved to assistant principal when they appointed a new principal, thinking that they should have a man in the position of authority. He only lasted one year and then Mary stepped back into her former position. The school thrived under her leadership, enrollment increasing from 50 students to 172, and earned the reputation of a most prestigious school for secondary education. Mary remained the principal until she resigned in 1884. It is believed that she remained on after that as a teacher.

Mary Church Terrell, writer, professor and principal at Wilberforce University and the first black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895, said of Mary Jane Patterson:

She was a woman with a strong, forceful personality, and showed tremendous power for good in establishing high intellectual standards in the public schools. Thoroughness was one of Miss Patterson’s most striking characteristics in a teacher. She was a quick, alert, vivacious and indefatigable worker.[4]

Mary Patterson became active as an advocate for women’s rights. She devoted her time to forming and supporting an industrial school for black girls. She helped found the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C. She also helped to maintain a Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People in Washington, D.C. Neither Mary nor her two sisters ever married. She died on September 24, 1994, aged 54. Today her home is a part of the Washington D.C. historic walking tour – Washington’s African American Heritage Trail. 

[1] See the post “’Hidden Figures’ Revealed – 3 Incredible Women”, April 25, 2017, on my site. 

[2] I am sticking with the historical names of institutions. Terms have changed from “Negro” to “Colored” to “African-American” to “Black”. Throughout this year as I tell the stories of black women, I will use the historical terms where they are more accurate.

[3] Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, Eva Beatrice Dykes, Euphemia Lofton Haynes all went on the earn doctoral degrees. 

[4] Quoted in Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1992. “Mary Jane Patterson (1840-1894): Educator, educational administrator”, p. 827.

Black Women in America

This is our final week in our celebration of Black History Month. I hope that these few accounts of remarkable black women who were the first to earn PhD’s have encouraged you to seek out other stories of the many thousands of courageous, inventive, successful, God-honoring, black women who have made a difference for probably hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives. 

In spite of the prejudice and other challenges they faced many black women rose above the difficulties and went on to do great things for God, society, and themselves. The first week in Black History Month we honored a very courageous woman, Eva Beatrice Dykes for being the first black woman in America to complete the requirements for a PhD. Her degree was in English Philology, and she received her degree at her commencement on June 22, 1921. Last week we looked at the story of the first woman to be awarded a PhD at commencement. Georgiana Rose Simpson received a PhD in German Philology on June 14, 1921 – just over 100 years ago. Last week we looked at the story of the second black woman to receive a PhD – Sadie T. M. Alexander, who received her PhD in economics on June 15, 1921. 

All of these amazing women accomplished more than just their PhD’s. They all served in their communities and in their churches resulting in changes for the better for countless people in American culture. This week’s story is about another great woman who was active in many areas – Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes – the first black woman to receive a PhD in mathematics (1943). 

Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890-1980)

Euphemia spoke of her faith, “which taught her that everyone ‘has a dignity that must be preserved.’

Though she was born Martha Euphemia Lofton, Euphemia did not often use her first name. She was born to Dr. William S. Lofton who was a prominent dentist in Washington D.C. and Lavinia Day Lofton who was active in the Roman Catholic Church as Euphemia would be later. Euphemia graduated from M Street High School in 1907, where she was valedictorian. She went on to graduate from the Miner Normal School in 1909. She began teaching and then enrolled in Smith College. In 1914 she received a bachelor-of-arts degree with a major in mathematics and a minor in psychology. 

In 1917, Euphemia married her friend since her teenage years, Harold Appo Haynes. Harold earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania and then a master’s in education from the University of Chicago. He went on to earn a doctorate in education from New York University in 1946. He taught at Howard University and then in the DC public schools. He and Euphemia would share a lifetime of working in the public schools while trying to improve the situation for black students. 

Euphemia earned a master’s degree in education from Chicago in 1930. Her thesis was “The Historical Development of Tests in elementary and Secondary Mathematics.” She traced the development of standardized testing from 1900 to 1930. She noted the problems with the variations in the scores and how educators handled those differences. Later, as we will see below, she would return to this research as she dealt with her concern that there was a tendency to use these scores to “track” students. What this means is that the educators were classifying students instead of just tracking their progress in learning. 

In 1943 Euphemia earned her doctorate in mathematics from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC., thus becoming the first black American woman to earn a PhD. In mathematics. The title of her dissertation was “The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences”. Her dissertation advisor, Dr. Aubrey Landry, was a leading advisor for women. The title of her dissertation which is very technical does not convey the love for the elegance of mathematics that Euphemia had come to appreciate. She also tried to convince other math teachers that they should not just be teaching adding and subtracting but trying to impart to students the real beauty of mathematics as ideas, concepts, and reflections. 

Euphemia said in a 1945 address, “’Mathematics–Symbolic Logic,’ given to junior high and high school mathematics teachers, Haynes eloquently described the full beauty of mathematics framed with logic and the need for teachers to convey this understanding. She stressed the need to devote significant time for observation and reflection to establish truth rather than repetition to cement in facts. She stated that if mathematics was not taught correctly, its true nature would not be seen: ‘Mathematics is no more the art of reckoning and computation than architecture is the art of making bricks, no more than painting is the art of mixing colors.’”[1]

After graduating with her doctorate Euphemia taught in public schools in Washington DC. She taught at all levels – elementary school, high school, and she was a professor of mathematics at Miner Teachers College where she established the mathematics department. She taught at the District of Columbia Teachers College where she served as the chair of the Division of Mathematics and Business Education. She occasionally taught part-time at Howard University. After her retirement in 1959 she was the head of the city’s Board of Education where she and Harold both worked to integrate the schools in Washington DC.

Euphemia lived her life based on her ideals. She believed that people should fill themselves with knowledge and then give of themselves in service to the community. She was active in many community organizations. She served as first vice president of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. She chaired the Advisory Board of Fides Neighborhood House, on the Committee of International Social Welfare, on the Executive Committee of the National Social Welfare Assembly, as secretary and member of the Executive Committee of the DC Health and Welfare Council. 

Euphemia was on the local and national committees of the United Service Organization, and as a member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Co-founder of Catholic Interracial Council of the District of Columbia, the Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of Women Voters, and the American Association of University Women. In 1966 she became the president of the District of Columbia Board of Education where she continued to fight racial segregation.

For 47 years, Euphemia and Harold were advocates for justice in the public schools in the DC area. They were outspoken critics of the segregation in the public schools in Washington DC. As I alluded to earlier, Euphemia thought that the way the testing was “tracking” students was unfair to black or any underprivileged student. Students were placed in academic or vocational programs based on these tests. The students then had little or no opportunity to move into a different track. Thanks to the efforts of Euphemia the track system was eventually replaced with a system that met the needs of all students, allowing them to have more of a choice in their own education.

Euphemia was active in many Catholic organizations and devoted much of her time to them after her retirement. She was president of the Washington Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women from 1964-1966. She served on the board of Catholic Charities. Euphemia spoke of her faith, “which taught her that everyone ‘has a dignity that must be preserved.’ She spoke of the difficulty of achieving goals, but also spoke of the inner strength that her faith gave her: ‘…consolation in sorrow…darkness into light…replace disappointment and affliction by peace; fear and hysteria by courage and hope’.”[2]  In 1959 she received the Papal medal, “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifex” for her work in church and community. 

Euphemia died on July 25, 1980, at the age of 89 in Washington DC. Her beloved Harold had died two years earlier. They did not have children. They bequeathed $700,000 from their estate to the Catholic University of America. The university used the money to endow a chair named in her honor and establish a student loan fund in the education department. 

The Euphemia Lofton Haynes Award was established in 2018. It is given to a junior mathematics major who has demonstrated excellence and promise in his/her study of mathematics.

[1] From an article in the journal of the American Mathematical Society, Euphemia Lofton Haynes: Bringing Education Closer to the “Goal of Perfection” by Susan E. Kelly, Carly Shinners, Katherine Zoroufy, October 2017, pages 995-1003

[2] Ibid, p. 1002

Black Women in America

Black History Month – Part 3

It is a great privilege and honor to be able to present the stories of some of our remarkable black sisters. Many other websites are honoring Black women this month. I chose to focus on the first black women to earn a PhD. Very few people, male or female, black or white have a PhD. For the women whose stories we are covering to have earned their PhD’s in the early twentieth century when there was so much prejudice against black people is truly amazing. These women must be counted among the most courageous people who ever lived.

The first week in Black History Month we honored a very courageous woman, Eva Beatrice Dykes for being the first black woman in America to complete the requirements for a PhD. Her degree was in English Philology, and she received her degree at her commencement on June 22, 1921. Last week we looked at the story of the first woman to be awarded a PhD at commencement. Georgiana Rose Simpson received a PhD in German Philology on June 14, 1921 – just over 100 years ago. This week we will look at the story of the second black woman to receive a PhD – Sadie T. M. Alexander, who received her PhD in Economics on June 15, 1921.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989)

“… all men are the children of one God the Father, members of the same Mystical Body of Christ and temples of the same Holy Ghost.”[1]

You may have heard the saying, “The apple did not fall far from the tree” and that is true of Sadie T. M. Alexander. She came from a family who accomplished a great many “firsts” and went on the accomplish many “firsts” herself. Sadie’s grandfather, Benjamin Tucker Tanner was the founding editor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review (1884-1888). Her father, Aaron Mossell and his brothers were the first black American children to attend a fully integrated school in Lockport, New York. Aaron Mossell was the first black American to graduate from law school. His brother, Nathan Francis Mossell was the first black American to graduate from Penn’s medical School. Her aunt, Halle Tanner (Johnson) graduated from medical school and became the first woman of any race to practice medicine in Alabama. 

Into this incredible family, Sadie was born on January 2, 1898, in Philadelphia. Sadly, only a year later her father left their family. Her mother, Mary Tanner Mossell moved the family to Washington, D.C. to be near her relatives. Sadie Mossell graduated from the all-black M Street High School in Washington, D.C. She wanted to go to Howard University, but her mother convinced her to return to Philadelphia and attend the University of Pennsylvania. Sadie was admitted to the university but while there she encountered enormous racial and gender discrimination. 

She later recalled that every night at the beginning of her fall, 1916 term she would pray, “God give me the strength to do my assignment the very best I have the ability” and “Dear Lord, teach me to walk alone and not be lonely, knowing Thou art at my side.”[2] As we saw in the story of Georgiana Simpson, Sadie was shunned by white women. They would not talk to her and then she would show up late in class only to be seated next to white women who had ignored her and didn’t tell her where to find her class.

Sadie bravely persevered and in 1918 she graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in education with senior honors. During her undergraduate years she developed a special friendship with Virginia Alexander who would continue her studies at the Women’s Medical College. Through Virginia she met and later married Virginia’s brother, Raymond Pace Alexander. Sadie and Virginia became active in the Black American Gamma Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1921 Sadie accomplished one of her many “firsts” becoming the first president of the national organization in 1921. 

Sadie was awarded a Master of Arts degree in economics in 1919 and won the Francis Sergeant Pepper Fellowship in economics for 1920-21. This grant helped her to finish graduate school when she achieved another first. In 1921 Sadie was the first black American, male or female, to receive a PhD in Economics. 

As a black woman in the 1920’s Sadie was unable to secure employment in the field for which she was trained. She finally took a job as an actuary for a black-owned insurance company. In 1923 Sadie Tanner Mossell and Raymond Pace Alexander were married at the Tanner homestead in North Philadelphia. She remained at home while Raymond passed his Pennsylvania bar examination and established a private law practice.

After all of her incredible intellectual accomplishments the role of housewife was not very fulfilling for Sadie. Though she would have two children she was so gifted and able that she could easily juggle roles between work and home. So, Sadie did what all brilliant and enthusiastic intellectuals did, she went back to school. In 1924 she achieved another first as a black American woman enrolled in the School of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. She was also the first to serve as associate editor of the Law Review and the first to graduate in 1927 and yet another first was achieved as she became the first black American woman to pass the bar and practice in Pennsylvania.

One of the reasons that Sadie wanted to get a law degree was because she saw it as a way to help improve educational opportunities for blacks. She had confronted too much unfair discrimination at school. For example, the dean at the law school made a directive that excluded her from joining clubs with her classmates. She studied at home with her husband. The dean then attempted, but failed, to prevent her from being elected to the Law Review Board. After graduating, because no law firms would hire a woman at that time, Sadie practiced law at her husband’s firm. She specialized in estate and family law and worked in the orphan’s court. Sadie and Raymond were one of the first husband/wife law teams in the country. In 1927, Sadie achieved another first, becoming the first black women to be appointed as the city solicitor for Philadelphia, a job she held for eight years. 

In the 1930’s Mary Elizabeth and Rae Pace Alexander were born. This happened at a time when Sadie was becoming more involved with social activities. Civic and religious organizations were continually asking her to speak. Her speeches focused on barriers that prevented black people from full participation in democratic, economic, and educational activities. She called for social action and changes to policies that were discriminatory. Still, Sadie successfully balanced her domestic responsibilities with a professional and civic life.

In 1946, President Harry Truman appointed Sadie to a committee that was investigating civil rights. This was another first as Sadie became the first black woman appointed to a presidential committee. This was the most important civil rights commission that had ever been organized. Her work laid the foundation for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Sadie’s massive contribution demonstrated how the actual civil rights and liberties of black people did not match up with what the United States said they were. In 1978 Sadie was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to chair the White House Conference on Aging.

In 1948 Sadie was recognized as an inspiration for black Americans. She was named “Woman of the Year” and featured in Negro Heroes,[3] a comic book published by the National Urban League with the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Aimed at black youth, the publication strove to emphasize “the value of education, training, and perseverance as seen through role models such as Sadie Alexander, Jackie Robinson, and Booker T. Washington.”[4] 

Sadie is a wonderful example of perseverance and a good role model for black youth.

Here are just two examples of Sadie Alexander’s wisdom for which she is deserving of remembrance and should be honored. Although some of her speeches are a bit “dated”, the truths about racial tolerance and equal opportunity are still timely. 

Tolerance – “It is the person we do not know whom we dislike. In all of the people you know well, you can find some admirable qualities. The same situation exists concerning the relation between races of people.”[5] This is why we are celebrating Black History Month. The stories need to be told so that white people can get to know black people and help erase the unreasonable prejudice.

Opportunity – Sadie often spoke of the discrepancy between the words of American citizens and their actions. There were numerous laws on the books aimed at preventing racial discrimination, but many people just ignored them and did little to address the wrongs. She was saddened by it not only because of the injury to black people but because she loved her country and wanted America to be great. America can not hold her head up high in the face of such hypocrisy. Why would other nations choose democracy when they see America failing to protect the lowest of her citizens? “By destroying every vestige of discrimination at home, we make democracy secure at home and in so doing the hope of the people of the world.”[6]

This limited space prevents me from listing all of the activities of Sadie Alexander including the more than thirty organizations that Sadie participated in while making many valuable contributions. In 1974, Sadie received a fifth college degree from the University of Pennsylvania – an honorary Doctor of Laws. The citation presented to her at that time sums up her remarkable life of achievement:

“Through her singular legacy of womanhood, family, and race, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander has given us all a special heritage of accomplishment to be admired and emulated. …  As an active worker for civil rights, she has been a steady and forceful advocate on the national, state, and municipal scene, reminding people everywhere that freedoms are won not only by idealism but by persistence and will over a long time.”[7]

Sadie remained active until 1982 when her battle with Alzheimer’s disease forced her to retire from public life. She retired to Cathedral Village in Philadelphia where she spent her remaining years. She died in 1989. 

How many “firsts” did you find in this post?

[1] Nina Banks, Editor. Democracy, Race, & Justice: The Speeches and Writings of Sadie T. M. Alexander (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021) p. 180.

[2] Jessie Carney Smith, Editor. Notable Black American Women. (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1992) p. 6.

[3] This magazine is a part of history. I am merely reporting it. Many changes have been made for black citizens since then. We lament the fact that there haven’t been more. 

[4] Ibid. Smith. page 7.

[5] Nina Banks, Editor. Democracy, Race, & Justice: The Speeches and Writings of Sadie T. M. Alexander (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021) p. 189.

[6]  Banks, p. 233

[7] Smith, page 8.