tv Dorothy Ferebee CSPAN January 24, 2016 11:14pm-12:01am EST
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>> up next, author and new york state supreme court judge diane diesel discusses the life of supreme court activist dorothy ferebee. she thought for women's health rights, racially quality, and health care improvements for african-americans. the massachusetts historical society hosted this 45 minutes event. >> thank you all for joining us this evening. my name is gavin. i work for the massachusetts historical society. i want to thank you for taking time out of your holiday festivities and battling the bad weather. it seems like we have a decent turnout. just as a quick note, the massachusetts historical society is an independent, nonprofit organization. we rely on membership support and contributions to bring you programs like this. if you enjoy this, i hope you will consider becoming a member or making a contribution. tonight, our speaker is diane
kiesel. she is an acting justice in the new york state supreme court. she sits in the integrated domestic violence court. before being appointed to the bench, she spent 10 years as a prosecutor and manhattan district attorney. she is adjunct professor of law and author of a textbook, domestic violence: law, policy, and practice. she was a journalist in washington dc where she won a number of prizes. tonight, she will be speaking about dorothy ferebee. dr. ferebee grew up in virginia. she attended boston latin simmons college. she graduated in 1924, launching an activist career that lasted until her death. she became the president of the national council for negro women
and was active in the applet help a after the -- the alpha kappa alpha. she advised congress on civil rights issues and health policy. judge diane kiesel will speak about her and put her in a national context. [applause] diane: thank you. can you hear me? thank you for coming. i thank the massachusetts historical society for hosting me. on june 11, 1963 president kennedy appeared on national television to ask congress to enact landmark civil rights legislation. remember, this wasn't the days of cnn, where you have to fill a new cycle 24 hours. when the president of the united
states came on tv in 1963, it was important. what he said was as follows. "we are confronted with a moral issue. it is as old as the scriptures and clear as the american constitution. if an american, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch at a restaurant open to the public, cannot send his children to the best schools available, cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, who among us would be content to have the cover of his skin changed? who among us would be content with councils of patience and delay?" dr. dorothy ferebee is the topic of my talk this evening. she was born in 1898 in north folk, virginia. she died in washington dc in 1980.
during her lifetime, she suffered all the indignity described by president kennedy. but, dorothy was never content with councils of patience and delay. as a physician and civil rights activist, she devoted her life to righting the wrongs articulated by president kennedy. in fact, jfk would call on her that summer to come to the rose garden and help him win over legislators to his civil rights bill. by that summer, dorothy was the most recognizable black woman in america. in the 1920's, she started the first black settlement house in washington dc. during the great depression, she led one of the most famous health programs in history, the mississippi health project, through which she brought medical care to 15,000 destitute
sharecroppers and tenant farmers. some of whom had never seen a toothbrush, let alone a medical doctor. on the eve of world war ii, she led alpha kappa alpha, the sorority of african-american women, where she worked to bring more women into the visions of power in this government. in the 1950's, she was president of the national council of negro women, and used that platform to advise presidents and testified before congress on key civil rights issues. in the 1960's, she went to selma to join sncc and its voting rights campaign. she traveled to the third world during that decade as an advisor to the state department to bring best health care practices to foreign service workers working in third world countries.
in the 1970's, old and ill, she nonetheless led a delegation to international women's year in mexico city. she was the chair of the d.c. council commission on the status of women, were she was determined to make washington dc a location for safe access to abortions. she wrote a syndicated column to the african-american newspapers. just about every night of her life, she stood at podiums like this in churches, schools, hotel ballrooms, libraries, to bring her message to the public. when dorothy ferebee died in 1980, "the washington post" published a glowing tribute to her. the editor said it took more than a little courage to break down the barriers of sex and color. dorothy ferebee knew how to do so with a marvelous blend of
compassion, and class. and then her story dies with her. to begin to understand why, and who she was, and what motivated her, we need to recall another famous speech from the same year president kennedy spoke. he called for a civil rights bill. on august 28, 1963, dr. martin luther king stood before the lincoln memorial and uttered the immortal line that began with the phrase "i have a dream". at the turn of the 20th century, little dorothy had a dream. as a child, playing on her grandfather's front porch from his elegant victorian mansion in north folk, virginia, she -- in norfolk, virginia, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. whenever a bird fell out of a
tree, her grandmother would give her strips of material and she would rescue the little bird by making a sling for his broken foot or wing. frankly, in the remains of the old south, dorothy's dream of becoming a doctor was little more than a type dream. in the 1890's, there were 150 black women doctors in the entire country. the only school dorothy could hope to attend in virginia was the cumberland street colored school, where the children were trained for the manual labor they believed was their fate and destiny. so, the city of boston becomes the place where dorothy is able to turn her childhood dream into a reality. dorothy was one of the talented 10, the phrase coined by dr. web
du bois to describe the leaders. but her family did not start there. dorothy's maternal grandfather, a man named richard page known to his contemporaries as r.g.l. was born into slavery, as were his three brothers. his father was most certainly white. his mother and maternal aunt worked in their masters home as house servants. his aunt was apparently an excellent seamstress. his mother died when he was a child. in the summer of 1855, a yellow fever epidemic decimates the white population of norfolk and leaves the city in turmoil. the owner of rgl's aunt, he is a
white man who dies in the epidemic. the remnants of her family, dorothy's grandfather and brothers, as well as her great aunt, they are terrified they are going to be separated and sold. they decide one by one to make a run for it. first, rgl's aunt phyllis joins a handful of runaway slaves who paid the captain of a boat to take them to philadelphia. from there, with the help of the underground railroad, she makes it to boston. dorothy's great uncle thomas is the next to make a break for it, followed by her grandfather. they paid their way here. he is only 10 years old, he doesn't have any money. he stows away on the ship.
he finds himself in philadelphia and is sent to boston. their story is told by william still in a book that you can see over at the african-american museum here in boston on joyce street. he was the secretary of the philadelphia vigilance society and kept accounts of runaway stories. slavery in this state was abolished by the supreme judicial court in 1783. here in boston, the runaway pages lived on beacon hill at 62 pinckney street with the prominent george stillman hillard and his wife. this was an area known to abolitionists. the african-american meetinghouse was there. william lloyd garrison made fiery speeches against slavery
during the time the pages would have lived here. george hillard, the house in which they were living, was a writer, a lawyer, politician and the judge. he was a trustee of the boston public library, and for a time, he was senator charles sumner's law partner. mrs. hillard was an abolitionist working with sumner, harriet beecher stowe, to help pave the way for runaway slaves to come to boston along with the poet longfellow. most interestingly, george hillard became the united states commissioner. commissioners were responsible under the 1850's fugitive slave law for returning runaway slaves
to their -- the word then was rightful owners in the south. interesting enough, while hillard is doing this by day he goes home at night, and there is half the page family living in his attic. one wonders how much his heart was really in abiding by the fugitive slave law or whether he was engaged in his own one-man protest against it. that being said, rgl lived with the hillard's until the end of the. -- end of the civil war. he was taught a trade, brass finishing, and started to mingle with boston african-american elite. he met his wife at the 12th baptist church and married her in 1868. she was the sister of george ruffin, the first african-american man to graduate from harvard law school. his wife, josephine st. pierre, was a well-known suffragette. after the war, rgl returns to norfolk, becomes a member of the
general assembly during reconstruction, and goes on to be a lawyer, businessman, and wealthy fellow. he and his wife had nine children. one of whom, florence cornelia page, was dorothy's mother. her parents, dorothy and benjamin, were graduates of hampton institute. her father was a good friend of booker t. washington. they had three children, their youngest being dorothy. it was natural after the family's long historical connection to boston that dorothy would get out of the cumberland street colored school and go someplace where she could be educated. she did not go to boston latin. she went to boston girls school. i think they are different institutions. she was an amazing scholar. from there, she went on to
simmons college. when dorothy lived in boston she lived with the remnants of the ruffin family at 62 west cedar street. the house still stands. after graduating from girls high in 1915, she went to simmons college and graduated from tufts medical school with honors in 1924. now, simmons audience members, this will excite you. while at simmons, she puts her toe into the civil rights waters. while she is an 18-year-old student, she writes the most amazing essay against lynching. so amazing it made the local newspapers. colored girl at simmons writes on lynching. headline screamed. it was written during world war i. she was a sophomore. she asked in this essay how america could be alive with the cause of freedom around the world when at the same time her
-- when "at the same time her americanism, her ideal of justice and mercy meted out to all mankind has been shamefully this merged upon her own free soil by lynching. it is knowledge of such crimes common to both the public and the government and no voice, no pen, no hand is raised in protest against them, the sins swiftly settles upon the brow of every american citizen." those are pretty strong words from a kid. and in context, when she wrote, these the espionage act had just been enacted. it barred the use of disloyal, profane, or abusive language about the united states on pain of up to 20 years in prison. in that context, this essay, which is harshly critical of the united states and its lack of
doing anything about lynching, during wartime, that it was particularly courageous. but that was dorothy. she left boston for good in 1924 and moved to washington dc to intern at the segregated friedman's hospital in washington dc. it wasn't opportunity that brought her there, it was racism. applications for internships required a photograph, and dorothy's photo showed a face that was black. therefore, friedman's hospital was the only hospital that would take her, even though she graduated with honors from medical school. friedmans was known as howard -- was later known as howard university hospital, affiliated with the medical school there, and until 1950, it trained half of all african-american doctors in the country were trained at howard.
she stayed there until she retired in 1968. she was an obstetrician, gynecologist. she taught at a medical school, opened a private practice out of her home, ran howard university student health service and delivered african-american children throughout the city. health service delivery was segregated in that highly segregated city. if you ask african-american senior citizen today, anyone over 85 years old living in washington dc if she knows dorothy ferebee, the chances are they will say sure, she delivered me. dorothy made waves in washington dc. she was articulate and attractive, always in a tailored suit or dress. with a matching handbag and shoes, stockings, a hat with a veil, and a fresh corsage on her lapel.
early on, it became clear she never met a podium she didn't love. she started her lifelong speaking career in a voice that sounded like a cross between eleanor roosevelt and rose kennedy. she spoke often and early in the d.c. public schools. in fact, the first time she climbed on her soapbox it was to lecture about one of her favorite topics -- sex education. it was her view children as young as five should be taught about sex education and birth control. mind you, once again, this is dorothy. this is in the 1920's. in the 1920's, it is illegal to advocate contraception in public. the rest of the medical profession was not on board with this. in fact, the american medical association did not endorse birth control until 1937.
some of this got dorothy in a little bit of hot water because she also talked a lot about the need for passing on good genes. this got her tarred a little bit with the eugenics movement. in the 1920's, it was not the dirty word it became after the holocaust and hitler. dorothy married a colleague from howard university in 1930. a movie star handsome dentist named dr. claude thurston ferebee. he had been educated at the columbia university school of dentistry. he also had aspired to be an artist. a year later, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. the boy was named claude, the girl, dorothy jr. as she put it, no controversy. one for him, one for me. their marriage was always rocky.
it is hard to understand why, other than the fact that it must've been very difficult to be mr. dr. dorothy ferebee, because she clearly was the reigning star in the family. while she was out saving the world, her children were largely out of control and her jealous husband found solace in the arms of other women. when her daughter died in 1950 at the age of 18 of a botched abortion that dorothy could have safely performed herself, her long, ailing marriage marriage died along with her daughter. her husband blamed her for their daughter's death thinking had dorothy not been so famous and powerful, their daughter would not have been afraid to bring this to her attention and possibly could have been saved.
it is hard to put your finger on where dorothy was most successful and most famous. she followed the iconic mary claude bassoon as the second president of the national council of negro women. between 1949 and 1953, which really was the nascent civil rights movement. she became a familiar face in the halls of congress lobbying for federal money to build black hospitals, improve black schools, and to force lawmakers to open the doors of mainstream life to african-americans. she always pushed for a federal bill to end lynching in the country and was never successful in doing that. she was a familiar face to eleanor roosevelt, mimi
eisenhower, in, and to the presidents. to truman, roosevelt, lyndon johnson, and president kennedy. as the civil rights movement grew younger and more radical in the 1960's and early 1970's, her influence waned and her talented ideals became as woefully outdated as her stockings and veiled hats that she continued to wear until her death. dorothy had many adventures and took many brave stands. i'd like to read to you a small part from the book about what i think was her bravest endeavor and shining hour. that was one of her trips to mississippi in 1936. i want to remind you all this is not today's hipster mississippi,
where young people go down there to stay in fancy hotels and drink booze. this is dixiecrat mississippi. this is where the united states senator for a long time was james eastland, and he stood as a barrier to any progressive civil rights legislation. his father, some of you may not know, actually led a lynch party, and he lynched one of his own sharecroppers and a woman who was his girlfriend, torturing both of them and making sure the man had to watch as his loved one died first. it must've been really awful, because he actually stood trial for it, which was almost unheard of. and of course, got acquitted. as lyndon johnson once said, "there is america, there is this -- there is the south, and then
there is mississippi." the posters went up in churches, on crate myrtle trees and a long rotting walls of one-room school houses all over the mississippi delta, addressed to the colored people, written in large letters as if by a huckster announcing the arrival of the traveling circus. notice, colored people. come to a clinic for health advice. the anonymous author promised a genuine lady doctor from washington dc. dr. dorothy ferebee and her staff of trained colored assistants who would treat the sick of their race. the mississippi health project was coming to town. lord knows the colored people of countyer -- bolivar
needed all of the help they could get. while the rest of the population clawed their way out of the great depression that had engulfed the decade, blacks in the delta still suffered the same miserable existence they always had with no end in sight. most african-americans in the delta worked the land as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. akin to modern day slavery. entire families earned the sum of $50 a year, sometimes less. farmworkers lived on the most fertile ground on earthm but -- fertile ground on earth, but their diet contained almost no fruits or vegetables, because the landowners refused to allow them to use the valuable acreage to cultivate small gardens. wholesome foods were not sold at the plantation commissary. the only store that would accept their salaries of scrip. dorothy found suffering of diseases that should not have
been seen since the 19th century. the health team battled more than the disease. belief in superstitions ran as deep as belief in the baptist church and god. cut your child's hair and she will never speak. chew horseradish. teabags on your eyes to cure the common cold. there was an abundance of ignorance and absence of joy. some mothers had no idea how old their own children were. others didn't know their own names, first or last. on seeing the children of the delta, one of dorothy's nursing assistants once wrote, "we have the opportunity once again to strengthen our conclusion that children in mississippi don't smile." blacks in the deep south in the 1930's were prohibited from voting, eating in restaurants or
drinking at water fountains reserved for whites. african americans constituted 50% of the state of mississippi and 75% of the residents of bolivar county, but they had no role in mainstream life. they crowded into shacks or slums on the edge of town. they sat in the back of the bus. they had no chance at jobs providing a decent living. a black man called the white man sir, and the white man responded by calling him boy. for many of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers, some descendent from slaves who once worked the same fields, dorothy's clinic was the first health care beyond cold compresses for fevers and homemade potions for ailing stomachs. some of their children had never used a toothbrush and cried because their jaws ached from decay.
as dorothy and her volunteers made their final preparations for their second year in the mississippi health project, their anxiety grew. their sponsor, the prestigious alpha kappa alpha sorority sent -- sorority, whose members included daughters of the african-american elite, had asked members for $1000 to send dorothy to the neighboring county in 1935. the black press hailed this adventure as a triumph. in fact, it had been rough going. the landowners pulled up the welcome mat as soon as dorothy arrived, refusing to allow the workers near the medical team. it was not until she drove from farm to farm to explain she was there to provide health care, not organize a union or advocate for civil rights, that all but one owner relented, but even
then, the owners would not let their workers off their land or out of their sight. dorothy was forced to bring the clinic to the patients by setting up shop directly on the cotton fields under the watchful eyes of overseers. a year later, in his office, not far from the whitewashed courthouse, dr. rozier davis detweiler, the chief officer for health in the county, had his own headache over dorothy's imminent arrival. it was detweiler who printed all those posters, stuck them where they could, and made sure they got into the hands of the preachers. he knew all about holmes county the summer before, and he felt both pity and awe for dorothy
when he received her letter, telling him she wanted to try again, this time in bolivar. he vowed to help. using memos and meetings, he convinced mississippi officials all the way to jackson that the clinic was as beneficial for landowners as it was for the black sharecroppers. from his perspective, the arrival of the colored medical team was the best thing to happen to the country since fdr. landowners who disagreed were too blinded by bigotry to realize that healthy field hands meant more profits and allowing them to be treated by one of their own meant that local white doctors didn't have to deal with them. all detwiler had to do was to make them see the light. he was a longtime southerner and landowner himself. the 58-year-old detwiler lived on the grove, one of the finest plantations in the delta, with 600 fertile acres producing king cotton. he was a wealthy man. before the civil war, slaves waited on his ancestors, and in the years since, paid black
servants worked the great white house that crowns the property, and sharecroppers plowed. although the doctor's wife, the doctor early on shed any ingrained biases may have had against the negro. as a young physician before world war i, supported by rockefeller brothers funding, he engaged in research to stamp out yellow fever, and his intellectual world expanded well beyond the steamy streets of cleveland, mississippi. on the dr.'s desk was a motto that he aspired to live by, "neither look up to the rich or down to the poor." in 1936, the entire country was parched. given that dorothy was likely to arrive in the middle of a heat wave, detwiler planned to be the first to invite her on his
property for a tall glass of iced tea, and better yet, dinner, and he would make sure word would get around. if that wouldn't set an example for other owners, nothing would. meanwhile, in washington dc, where dorothy lived and practiced medicine, she was busy cajoling her husband and project volunteers to lend their cars to carry the team and supplies 1000 miles into the deep south. before the new deal public works projects were in full swing, mississippi was so poor, there were few miles of paved road. beset by griping from car owners over who would pay for repairs in case of blown tires, as well as last-minute cancellations from her medical team, some because their families feared for their lives, dorothy was close to losing her mind.
tormented by similar naysaying the year before when she was about to go to holmes county, she boldly stated, "i am not discouraged. i will do everything i can, single-handedly if necessary. oh but as it turned out, she didn't have to go alone. she and her health team gathered in washington on a hot july morning, loaded up their cars, and drove in a caravan to mississippi and into history. thank you. [applause] if you have any questions about dorothy or the book or anything, i would be happy to take a few minutes to answer them. >> [indiscernible] >> the obituary that i described when i opened my talk in 1980, i read that obituary when i was a young reporter in washington, d c, and the whole time i read it,
i said, who is this lady? how come i haven't heard of her? and wanted to write about her then. there was not as much interest then as there is today, in african-american history, sadly. i was young and inexperienced, and i don't think i would've written a very good book. my life kind of went on another path. i went to law school. after i wrote a textbook on domestic violence a couple of years ago, i thought, i think i can do this. i googled her and figured somebody else must have. when nobody else did, i decided i was going to do it. it took about seven years. between working full-time and writing full-time -- yes? >> i was going to say, because i am a member of alpha kappa alpha, she is very well thought
of. when i was talking to someone today when i was coming to hear you speak, the first thing a friend of mine said was, we should tell the sorority. i think it's a moment of pride. as someone who teaches history and teaches about the good doctors that went into mississippi in the 60's. there is a book about that. alpha kappa alpha is always so proud that we did this in the 30's, and it does give meaning to this concept in the civil rights movement. they were aware in the 1930's that people's health had a lot to do with their ability to survive. and to live well. by the 1940's with truman, he is saying that health is a human right, so they are very conscious of all of that.
diane: one of the people who went with dorothy was a woman named marjorie holloman. she was married to a federal judge named barrington parker. her son, who i spoke with is a federal judge in new york, and she was a beautiful writer. she became sort of the secretary, if you will, of the health project. she went for four summers. she picked up on exactly what you said. she later wrote, in a retrospective in the 1970's, that by going to mississippi in the 1930's, the doctor and her team were the stalking horses, if you will, they foreshadowed the freedom summers and the voting rights movement that came 20 or 30 years down the line. she was a pioneer in so many ways, and that one, i think, being the most important.
>> thank you so much for the fabulous talk. i look forward to reading your book. if you could tell me please, does she keep journals or diaries? are her papers collected? does she have relatives now, children? diane: all of dorothy's papers are at howard university. there are also other papers of hers at the national -- the archive of black women's history that is a part of the ncnw, now owned by the national park service. and those are the records during the four years that she was the president, but also, she was on the board for many years. interestingly enough, did dorothy keep journals? no. as a matter of fact, in 17 feet
of papers, there is not one word about her marriage, her children, her friends, her mom. the only journal she ever kept was a 150-plus-page journal, which is a gold mine, when she accompanied mary claude bassoon to the founding of the united nations, the founding conference, in the spring of 1945 in san francisco. by the way, she got to go on that because she was married to bethune's physician. bethune sort of anointed her to be the person that followed her. she jumped on the train to new
york and was so excited, she didn't bring a pad with her. so she first of all writing this journal that she managed to score a notebook from somebody, and she follows the train all the way to san francisco. it's amazing. she is sitting there the night that somebody holds up a newspaper signaling the end of the war in europe. she is hobnobbing with nelson rockefeller and molotov. she is a wonderful reporter. when someone is speaking in french, her simmons college french comes in handy, because she takes notes in flawless french, but the long answer to your brief question is, she didn't keep any personal journals or diaries. everything has to be pieced together by inference. her daughter died at age 18. her son only lived another year after she lived.
he died at 51 of pancreatic cancer. his wife died of an abdominal cancer years later. he had four children, two of whom died in adulthood. there were two adult children who remained alive. in their 50's now. a strange person knocks on their door and said, i read grandmas obituary 30 years ago, will you help me, and they did. they invited me into their attics, where i found photographs that are in the book that are just priceless. they were quite wonderful. dorothy l. farebee has some distant relationship to dorothy ferebee, but she isn't sure what it was, because her mom died as -- died when she was just a child. i never found how that connection worked. anyone else? a lady in the back? >> i am doing some research on african-american women who
should be in the history books but aren't. one of the things that i've been doing is, i have friends in an african-american church in boston, and so for women's day, it started out, i would tell a story of somebody they had never heard of, and now they are doing research. we do this program together on women's day. the first time we did that, i will never forget, one of the women came to me afterward and said, nobody ever told us. diane: it's an important story and amazing story. i think about the fact that dorothy ferebee defies all odds just to become a doctor, and is
delivering babies, teaching medical students, running her own private practice, and by the way, when you were a young doctor at howard in the 1920's, you also had to ride the ambulance at night. that was also part of your job. doing all this, and then she has time to speak out every night on one injustice or another? this woman is unbelievable. look at her. she's beautiful, and she is always dressed to the height of fashion. there's nothing this woman can't do. unfortunately, she gets attacked a little bit because her children ended up having a bad time of it. think about this though. i really struggled with this in the book. we don't necessarily say that men are failures when they are out saving the world and their children end up not so great.
i think that dorothy takes a harder hit on this because she is a woman. interestingly enough, about a year before she dies, the national endowment for the humanities put on a program about women, and african-american women in particular, and poor dorothy, she can barely walk now, she has congestive heart failure. she gets herself up to the podium, and she is asked the question, "what has been the harder prejudice to overcome, being black or being a woman?" without missing a beat, she said, "being a woman." she said, because women have been so -- i'm not quoting it exactly -- women have had such a hard road of it, they have no confidence anymore. they think they can't do anything. nothing made her crazier then the idea that women couldn't do everything. that was so important to her.
her granddaughter-in-law was a cello player and needed $14,000 for one of her first cellos, and without asking dorothy, because she never would have asked, dorothy volunteered this money for her because it was so important for her to support her granddaughter-in-law's gift. she always wanted women to be doing something. that was so important to her. >> thanks very much. as people know, there are books for sale. diane: thank you all very much. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2015] [captioning performed by national captioning institute] which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] diane: what a great audience.