One of the things privileged white folks like myself have been asking ourselves this last week is: what can I do to redress this appalling imbalance between me and those of colour? On the plus side, I have heard of some very positive initiatives. For example, my son works in the music industry, and last week his company and others in the sector took time out to look at ways they could help redress some of these inequalities. Because of lockdown they all had to meet online, but I gather there was some fruitful discussion and practical steps will be made going forward.
So what can a dame do? If we pull together the two key issues of the moment – a pandemic and the rightful protests over the killing of George Floyd and bring these under damesnet’s umbrella, the answer is obvious. Let’s take a look at some of the extraordinary black women in the US who overcame the odds and became doctors and physicians. I have to say that the sheer number of these people is humbling.
First out of the traps must be Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler. In 1864 (yes, really) she was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. She was also an author and graduated from medical college at a time when very few African American women could either be a doctor or publish books. She practised medicine in Boston mainly with women and children, and after the Civil War moved to Richmond, Virginia, providing medical care to freed slaves. Her Book of Medical Discourses was one of the first medical publications by an African American.
Dr Louise Celia Fleming was born to slave parents in Florida in 1862. She trained as a teacher and went to work in the Congo from 1887-1891. On her return to the US she studied at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was one of the first African American women to graduate there in 1895.
In 1879, Mary Mahoney was the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing and go on to practise as a nurse. She collaborated with two colleagues to establish the National Association of Coloured Graduate Nurses in 1908. It aimed to uplift the standards and everyday lives of African American registered nurses and had a significant influence on eliminating racial discrimination in the registered nursing profession.
Jessie G. Garnett was Boston’s first black woman dentist, and in 1920 the first black woman to graduate from the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. She practised for nearly 50 years, although when new patients came to her surgery and saw her they would then ask to see the dentist.
In 1993 Minnie Jocelyn Elders was the first African American appointed Surgeon General in the US. One of eight children of a sharecropping family, she graduated in Biology in 1952 and joined the US Army a year later, where she trained as a physical therapist. She went on to obtain a medical degree at the University of Arkansas, followed by an M.S. in biochemistry in 1967. In 1987 Governor Bill Clinton appointed her Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, making her the first African American woman in the state to hold this position. Some of her major accomplishments include reducing the teen pregnancy rate by increasing the availability of birth control, counselling, and sex education at school-based clinics; a tenfold increase in early childhood screenings from 1988 to 1992 and a 24 percent rise in the immunization rate for two-year-olds; and an expansion of the availability of HIV testing and counselling services, breast cancer screenings, and better hospice care for the elderly.
All these women’s extraordinary achievements were made against a backdrop of racism and sexism. I salute their intelligence, bravery and determination.