Rights Pioneer Dorothy Ferebee’s Story Mostly Forgotten

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President Lyndon B. Johnson wishes Dorothy Ferebee

Credit: Yoichi Okamoto. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, Texas

President Lyndon B. Johnson wishes Dorothy Ferebee

(WOMENSENEWS)–In her prime Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee was the most recognizable African American woman in America. Had the time been less tainted by bigotry, she may have been the most recognizable woman in the country. But white America was not ready in the early 20th century to embrace a pioneering woman of color.

Long before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the young Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the boycott that followed, Ferebee battled racism and gender bias. From the time she denounced lynching in a college essay in 1918 through her journey to Selma, Ala., to champion voting rights in 1963 and beyond, she was on the cutting edge of major civil rights and women’s equality issues.

Ferebee arrived in Washington, D.C., during the Roaring Twenties with a diploma from Tufts Medical School in her hand, courage in her step and big plans in her head. Her ostensible purpose for moving to D.C. was to begin an internship at the Freedmen’s Hospital, which treated blacks, the only hospital that accepted her in the era of Jim Crow. That she became “a lady doctor” was in itself an amazing feat for an African American woman of her day. But this chosen child of the black elite had bigger ideas. She wanted to “uplift the race,” as the expression went, while she rose professionally. On her family tree were lawyers, businessmen, politicians and a judge. She set out to change the world and within five years of arriving in Washington was off to a running start.

If there is one word that captures the essence of Ferebee’s greatness, it is visionary. She saw a future in which blacks and whites were equal, and she worked to bring it about. There was so much that needed to change, starting with the rigid segregation of the nation’s capital. Poverty engulfed the city’s black children, many of whom were left to fend for themselves while their mothers took care of white women’s children. Because existing day care centers shut them out, Ferebee started a settlement house for African American children in 1930. She fought for reproductive rights; when the mere mention of the words birth control could land the speaker in jail, Ferebee, an obstetrician, advocated sex education for 5-year-olds.

The Mississippi Health Project

But it wasn’t until she led a traveling medical clinic to the Mississippi cotton fields to bring health care to dirt poor sharecroppers during the Depression that she catapulted herself into the national spotlight. Each summer from 1935 until the start of World War II Ferebee directed the Mississippi Health Project with a team of hand-picked volunteer nurses sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha, the elite black sorority founded at Howard in 1908. They left comfortable homes to travel to the Mississippi Delta, where the humidity was a relentless stalker. The shade of the magnolia trees offered no respite, and the swaying front porch swings circulated more mosquitoes than air. They drove thousands of miles of unpaved roads through the Deep South with no public place to eat, sleep or use the bathroom. It was tough, dangerous, and uncertain work.

The Mississippi Health Project would be a triumph for Ferebee and Alpha Kappa Alpha, but it almost ended before it started. Ferebee underestimated the resistance of the white plantation owners who refused to allow laborers to leave their farm for checkups by a meddling “colored lady doctor.” Undaunted, she improvised. She loaded cars with medical supplies and drove directly onto the cotton fields in the broiling sun to set up shop. When their cars got stuck in a ditch along an unpaved road– as was common– there was no AAA to tow them; the women got out in their silk stockings and high heels and pushed.

By the time gasoline rationing during World War II made it impossible to continue the long drive south, the Mississippi Health Project had treated 15,000 sharecroppers and their families. The U.S. Public Health Service lauded it as one of the most successful volunteer public health programs in history. Its legacy can be seen today as mobile vans affiliated with hospitals and clinics are routinely parked on city streets and in suburban shopping malls offering free mammograms, blood pressure screenings and flu shots.

The Mississippi Health Project would make Ferebee famous in her day. Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to the White House; schools, churches and civic groups wanted her to speak. Reader’s Digest, with more than a million readers in 1940, published a feature about it, praising the “Negro college women who devote their summer vacations to a health project that is peculiarly effective and dramatic” and singling out Ferebee’s leadership. Her presence on a podium guaranteed a packed house. She became a recognizable figure in her impeccably tailored suits, veiled hats, seamed stockings and the occasional corsage.

Aging Not a Factor

In 1939 she was elected president, or supreme basileus, of Alpha Kappa Alpha. A decade later she reached professional nirvana, succeeding the iconic Mary McLeod Bethune to become the second president of the National Council of Negro Women, a powerful umbrella group of women’s organizations. From this platform she had the ears of presidents, congressmen, business leaders, newspaper publishers and international figures.

Aging did not stop Ferebee. More than 30 years after her work in Mississippi, when she could have retired to her cottage on the Jersey shore, she returned to the Deep South in 1963 to participate in a voter registration drive in Dallas County, Alabama, home of Selma. Of 15,115 blacks eligible to vote, just 242 were registered.

At a standing-room-only rally in a Selma church, the audience was primed: they sang the mournful old Negro spirituals and the feisty new civil rights songs. With 750 locals, scores of national reporters and a handful of undercover cops inside, Ferebee, by then an old pro at wooing an audience, took to the pulpit. With her exaggerated diction– a pastiche of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rose Kennedy and the local elocution teacher– she gave an electrifying speech that prophetically championed expanding societal roles for women. By the time she sat down she had become a heroine for a new generation of civil rights warriors.

Her appearance that day only added to the Ferebee cachet; she had been a household name in the black press for years, her personal life fodder for the social pages. During her lifetime she would be photographed with Josephine Baker, Nelson Rockefeller, LBJ, Patricia Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Shirley Chisholm and important civil rights leaders.

As she aged and times changed, her work in the movement finally brought her recognition in the white press. The fashion photographer Irving Penn photographed her for Vogue magazine. “Charms birds off trees,” the editors gushed.

But ironically, as African Americans achieved the increased professional, economic and political power for which Ferebee fought so hard, her relevance waned and her fame faded. She and her “uplift the race” philosophy became as woefully outdated as the veiled hats and floral corsages she continued to wear. When she died of congestive heart failure on Sept. 14, 1980, her story for the most part died with her.

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