"while we have no longer to chill the blood of our friends by talking of branding irons, chains, whips, blood hounds and to the many physical wrongs and abominations of slavery, this foe of American prejudice renders our lives insecure, our homes unhappy, and crushes out the very sinew of existence — freedom and citizenship."
Since Berea’s founding, our motto has been, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” However, outside the campus, you would have found very few people in the middle to late nineteenth century who believed it. One woman, Dr. Mary E. Britton, class of 1874, not only lived her life by that motto, she fought—as a teacher, journalist, civil rights activist, and as the first female African American physician to practice in Lexington, Kentucky—to get the world to live by it as well.
Britton was born in 1855, on Mill Street in what is now Lexington’s Gratz Park Historical District, only a few doors down from the future Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, of Morgan’s Raid fame. Her parents were free blacks living in a slave state. Her father Henry was a freeborn carpenter, while her mother, Laura, had been emancipated at the age of sixteen. The family was well- respected, referenced in W. D. Johnson’s Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women in Kentucky as “honest, industrious people, among the first and highly respected families and citizens of Lexington.”
The Brittons had high hopes for their children as well. In 1869 Mary Britton and her sister, Julia, a musical prodigy, enrolled in what was then called the Berea Academy, the first racially integrated and coeducational college in the South. The only careers open to women in that era were nursing and teaching, so both girls trained as teachers. They were one year away from graduation when their father passed away in 1874. Their mother died four months later. With their parents gone, the Britton family was forced to forego finishing their education in order to survive.
What would have been a shattering blow to most families did not stop the Brittons. Mary Britton’s brother, Tom (1870-1901), became a successful jockey, winner of the 1891 Kentucky Oaks race. Her sister, Julia Britton Hooks (1852- 1942), in addition to being Berea’s first black faculty member, opened a music school in Memphis, Tennessee. Among her students was the legendary blues composer W.C. Handy. In 1909, Hooks, as ardent a civil rights activist as her sister, became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Julia’s grandson, Benjamin Hooks, would serve as NAACP executive director from 1977 to 1992.
After leaving Berea, Mary supported herself by teaching in segregated schools, first in Chilesburg, Kentucky, and then in Lexington. She also wrote for Our Women and Children, Kentucky’s premier black magazine, and it was as a writer that she would take her stand against Jim Crow.
After the Federal government started withdrawing support for Reconstruction efforts, state legislatures across the South began working to make segregation the law of the land under the rationale that the races would remain “separate but equal.” In an impassioned 1892 Kentucky Leader commentary, Britton made a fiery argument against passage of the Separate Coach Law, which required blacks and whites to ride in separate train cars.
“We ask no special legislation in our favor; all we want is an equal chance with other people to be let alone to make our way....We are aware that the Assembly has the power to inflict such a law, but is it right?” Britton wrote. “While we have no longer to chill the blood of our friends by talking of branding irons, chains, whips, blood hounds and to the many physical wrongs and abominations of slavery, this foe of American prejudice renders our lives insecure, our homes unhappy, and crushes out the very sinew of existence—freedom and citizenship.”
While Kentucky’s General Assembly still passed the Separate Coach Law, Britton gained admirers for her clear-headed denunciations of legalized racism, among them author and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. His poem, “To Miss Mary Britton,” includes these lines: Give us to lead our cause More noble souls like hers, The memory of whose deed Each feeling bosom stirs; Whose fearless voice and strong Rose to defend her race, Roused Justice from her sleep, Drove Prejudice from place.
While Britton continued writing about Jim Crow and African American suffrage for publications such as The Lexington Leader, The American Citizen, and The Daily Transcript, she did not confine herself to words alone. In 1892, Britton and E. Belle Mitchell Jackson—who had taught for Dr. John G. Fee at Camp Nelson before attending Berea—and a group of fourteen African American women established the Colored Orphan Industrial Home, distributing food, shelter, and clothing to destitute children. Children were taught trades, household chores, handicrafts, gardening, repair work, and business skills. Donations helped to nourish the residents—both physically and intellectually—until they could find their place in society. Over the years, the Home also served as a nursing home, a hospital, and a lending institution. The building still stands today, as the home of the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center and the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum.
Under Jim Crow, healthcare became even more problematic for African Americans. Black patients could legally be denied treatment at white hospitals, and there were only a small number of black physicians available to provide treatment. Britton attended Howard Medical School in Washington, DC, and Meharry Medical College of Nashville, Tennessee, the first black medical school in the U.S. In 1902, she became the first licensed African American female physician in Lexington, providing patients with hydrotherapy and electrotherapy treatments in her home at 545 North Limestone.
Mary E. Britton’s fearless voice was silenced in 1925. She was 70 years old. In her time, no one would have expected a black girl from central Kentucky to defy legalized prejudice against both skin color and gender to become a respected physician, much less a bold pioneer for human and civil rights. In an era when she had every obstacle one can imagine in her way, she proved that the content of our character cannot be measured by our wealth, by our gender, or by the color of our skins. As a teacher, a writer, a reformer and a physician, Mary E. Britton showed that the truest way to measure our worth as human beings is through the nobility of our souls.