This is the unmarked grave of Rebecca Crumpler.
Born as a free woman (I think) in 1831 in Christiana, Delaware, Crumpler grew up in Pennsylvania with an aunt who provided homeopathic medical care for her neighbors. This inspired the young girl, who would become the first certified African-American female doctor in American history. She moved to Massachusetts and had access to a good education for anyone at that time, not to mention a black girl. She attended the Newton English and Classical School, showing special skill in math. She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1852 and worked as a nurse for the next eight years, which was about the peak of black female employment for that era.
But in 1860, Crumpler managed to be accepted into the New England Female Medical College, the first black woman to be admitted. In fact, it was rare for either white women or black men to be admitted to any medical school at this time. But she was so incredibly skilled that the doctors she worked for in Charlestown urged that she be admitted and receive formal training. Less than 1 percent of certified American doctors in the U.S. in 1860 were women. None of them were black women. She faced a lot of racism while in the college. The faculty and administrators decided she was too slow at learning to pass. Her mentors in Charlestown knew this was ridiculous and continued to lobby to get her through the college, as her studies were objectively more than fine to continue in the program. Finally, in 1864, she won her medical degree and became the nation’s first black female certified doctor. She was also the only African-American who ever graduated from New England Female Medical College, which closed its doors in 1873.
Crumpler started a practice in Boston, focusing on medicine for black women and children, who of course did not generally receive proper medical care in a racist nation. But at the end of the Civil War, she relocated to Richmond to help provide care for the freed slaves. It is impossible to overestimate how terrible conditions were for the freedpeople in the summer of 1865. That period is usually seen in the terms of the jubilee of freedom and for good reason. But it was hard to be too joyous when you were literally starving. Death from both hunger and disease was very common and in the colder months exposure was killing a lot of people in 1864, 1865, and 1866. These were actually terrible times. Crumpler helped to do what she could. She worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide care for black people who were often denied it by white physicians, including whites affiliated with the American military occupying the region. Of course, she was utterly overwhelmed and was often literally the medical care of last resort for thousands of people. She operated in very difficult conditions too. Many druggists would not fill orders prescribed a black female doctor. White doctors were openly racist toward her. This was a very rough time, but also a heroic one for this pioneering woman.
In 1869, Crumpler moved back to Boston and restarted her practice there. She not only continued as a successful doctor but was a serious researcher and writer. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses, which was part memoir about how she became a doctor and part a book about her specialties, which included bowel problems in young children and the medical problems of adult women. This is also one of the first books of medicine ever written by any African-American and certainly the first by a black woman.
When Charles Sumner died in 1874, Crumpler spoke at his memorial service, where she read an original poem for him. She married twice, both to ex-slaves. Her first husband died while she was in medical school. The second was a runaway from Virginia who she met in Massachusetts. They actually married in New Brunswick in 1865 and I’m not entirely sure why, but then a lot of the specific details of Crumpler’s life are missing. In fact, no photographs of her survive, which I think demonstrates just how marginalized even the most successful African-Americans were in this era, when photographs were a new thing and getting a photo of yourself was a popular amusement. She died in 1895, in Fairview, Massachusetts.
As late as 1920, there were all of 65 black women certified as doctors in the United States.
Rebecca Crumpler is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts. Now, if you are wondering how I am so sure this is where Crumpler is buried, the answer is that I actually went to the cemetery office. They were very interested in this and brought out the original cemetery plot ownership book and everything. One of the workers even came out with me to help find the exact spot. So this is definitely it. It is however unclear if there was originally a gravestone and then it fell apart and was taken away or if there never a gravestone. There are a lot of unmarked spots in this section of the cemetery, which are mostly old graves.
If you would like this series to visit other pioneering African-American women, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Marian Anderson is in Collingdale, Pennsylvania and Hattie McDaniel is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.