Black achievement in education, medicine, and the arts during Jim Crow

Following the Compromise of 1877 that found Rutherford B Hayes inaugurated as President in exchange for leaving the south to its own designs, black people, free for only 12 years, soon found their rights systematically removed in the states of the former Confederacy.

Without protection from federal troops, blacks found themselves increasingly harrassed by the original American race obsessed terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan. Further, as northern Republican carpetbaggers who had descended south to take advantage of opportunities post-war returned north, the Democratic Party, infested with formerly rebllious Confederates, became the dominant political party in the south from the 1880’s until the late 1960’s, when many former white Democrats—opposed to civil rights—switched to the. Republican Party.

Lynchings during this post Reconstruction era were high and for many blacks, being relegated to second class citizenship through the codification of Jim Crow laws sunk morale to new lows. Despite these facts, within a forty year period from 1865 to 1905, hundreds of schools that would later become colleges and universities were chartered to teach blacks fundamental academic skills, trade skills and to prepare many to enter the teaching profession and the ministry.

To this end, Howard University, established in 1865, and Meharry Medical College in Nashiville, founded in 1876, even began training black doctors and nurses. So despite the struggle for equality, many blacks still set about a course of honorable achievement in varying professional endeavors.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, for example, was a black cardiologist and surgeon best known for performing the first successful open heart surgery. Williams was born on January 18, 1858 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, one of seven children of a free black barber and Scots-Irish mother. Williams graduated from the Chicago Medical College in 1883 and served as a surgeon for the South Side Dispensary and Protestant Orphan Asylum in Chicago from 1884 to 1893.


Due to the newly formed Jim Crow laws that were taking root and establishing segregation across the south and midwest, Williams founded Provident Hospital in 1891, a concern that also served as a training ground for black physicians and nurses. From 1892 to 1912, Dr. Williams held dual appointments as both chief surgeon at Provident as well as surgeon-in-chief at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he established a school for black nurses.

Dr. Williams’s fame was cemented on July 10, 1893 when a patient, James Cornish, presented with a knife wound to his chest. At the time, the concept of open heart surgery was generally frowned upon in the medical community and yet undaunted, Williams–without the aid of anesthetics, antibiotics or blood transfusions–opened the patient’s thoracic cavity and sutured the wound of the pericardium, a sac that surrounds the heart. Cornish recovered and lived an additional 20 years after the surgery.
Dr. Williams later served as a professor at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the leading schools–then and now–for educating black medical professionals. A highly respected researcher who published numerous articles in scholarly journals, Williams became the first black member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.

In literature, Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872 to former slaves in Dayton, Ohio and during high school in that city, edited the “Tattler,” a newspaper for African-Americans that was published by his schoolmate and future aviation pioneer Orville Wright of the Wright Brothers fame. Dunbar also began writing poetry in high school and upon graduation, supported himself as an elevator operator to allow time for his creativity to shine. In 1893, Dunbar published his first collection of poems entitled “Oak and Ivy” and later that year, he traveled to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where Frederick Douglass allowed him to publicly read his poem “The Colored Soldiers.”


Dunbar published his second book of poems, “Majors and Minors,” in 1895 and with it, exposed a facility with Negro dialect that prompted literary critic William Dean Howell to remark that Dunbar was the first “man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.”

In 1896, Dunbar published “Lyrics of Lowly Life” and with its success, toured England for a year before returning home to work at the Library of Congress. Dunbar remained at the Library for only a year as he quit his position to work full-time at his writing craft–a move that provided financial success which included his penning lyrics for musical compositions such as his 1899 collaboration with Will Marion Cook on the musical “Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk.”

Dunbar is perhaps best known for the poem “We Wear the Mask” which includes the oft quoted lines, “We wear the mask that grins and lies/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes/This debt we pay to human guile/With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” At its root, Dunbar’s poem captures the essence of the duality, or “two-ness” that Dr. W.E.B. DuBois would later coin, in which blacks struggling under the yoke of Jim Crow often had to appear plucky and cheerful n public, while simultaneously lamenting their status as second-class citizens in private.

During this same period, as much of the south was still agrarian based and as blacks during slavery and later during the era of sharecropping were well versed in the farming and industrial trades, by 1901, only five short years after Jim Crow was made the law of the land per the United States Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, Booker T. Washington had become arguably the most powerful black man in America.

Washington commanded respect among blacks and many whites–including a considerable number of ardent white racists–who felt that his support of social segregation, as outlined in his famous “separate as the fingers…one as the hand” Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895, validated their own desires to continue Jim Crow segregation and to allow blacks and whites to labor together and trade, but to keep schools and social interaction strictly limited. Washington, a graduate of Hampton Institute (now University), founded Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama in 1881. By 1901, Tuskegee was producing graduates who were elevating the black race from the ignorance that had been mandated during slavery while also helping to forge a black working and middle class.

Washington later befriended President Theodore Roosevelt, so much so that Roosevelt invited Washington to dine at the White House–an invitation that Washington graciously accepted. Predictably, outrage in the south about a Negro dining at the White House reached a fevered pitch, with a New Orleans Times-Democrat editorial going as far to ask “White men of the South, how do you like it? White women of the South, how do you like it?” The Richmond Times added “It means that the president is willing that Negroes shall mingle freely with whites in the social circle–that white women may receive attentions from negro men…”


Roosevelt, of course, was reelected in 1904, defeating Democrat Alton Parker despite Parker’s winning each state of the former Confederacy as well as the Civil War “border states” of Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. Washington, though, was never again invited back to the White House, as the halls of power within the nation’s Capitol, with few exceptions, would remain virtually off-limits for black men and women until the early 1940’s, when Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin, was entering his third term in office.