The following is an excerpt from She Can Bring Us Home: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Civil Rights Pioneer (Potomac Books, 2015) by Diane Kiesel.
The posters went up in churches, on crepe myrtle trees, and along rotting walls of one- room schoolhouses all over the Mississippi Delta, addressed to the “colored people” of Bolivar County and written in large letters as if by a huckster announcing the arrival of the traveling circus: “Notice! Colored People! Everyone come to a Clinic for Health Advice.” The anonymous author promised a genuine lady doctor from Washington DC, Dr. Dorothy Boulding 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 Bolivar County needed all the help they could get in the summer of 1936. 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. Nearly a quarter of all African Americans in Mississippi were illiterate.1 What little education was available in segregated schools in the Jim Crow South was abandoned during cotton-picking season so children as young as eight could work the fields.
Most African Americans in the Delta worked the land as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, akin to modern-day slavery. Entire families earned the grand sum of fifty dollars a year, sometimes less.2 These farmworkers lived on the most fertile ground on earth, but their diet contained almost no fruits or vegetables because landowners refused to allow them to use the valuable acreage to cultivate small gardens. Wholesome foods weren’t sold at the plantation commissary, the only store that would accept salaries of scrip. Dorothy found patients suffering from diseases that had not and should not have been seen in the United States of America since the nineteenth century. Pellagra and rickets were present, along with outbreaks of smallpox. Tuberculosis deaths were rampant and dysentery common. Thirty percent of the county’s African American men suffered from longterm untreated syphilis.3 Disease bearing mosquitoes swarmed the humid Delta, biting the ankles and necks of the workers in the fields and in their homes, which were nothing more than dilapidated shacks without window screens or, in some cases, front doors.
The health team battled more than disease. Belief in superstitions ran as deep as belief in the Baptist Church and Almighty God. Cut your child’s lice-ridden hair and she’ll never speak.4 Chew horseradish to relieve hoarseness. Tea bags on the eyes will cure the common cold.5 There was an abundance of ignorance and an absence of joy. Some mothers had no idea how old their children were. Others didn’t know their own names, first or last. On seeing the children of the Delta, one of Dorothy’s assistants wrote, “We had the opportunity again and again to strengthen our conclusion that children in Mississippi don’t smile.” She compared their little poker faces to the expressions on the faces of stockbrokers “regarding a 1929 Wall Street chart.”6
There was little to smile about. In Mississippi racists ruled with impunity and long ropes; the state was the lynching capital of the country.7 Between 1882 and 1927, 561 people were killed by lynch mobs there; 517 of them were black.8 Merely looking a white man in the eye was enough of a reason for a black man to be hanged. Looking at a white woman was an even better reason. A black man accused of the capital offense of raping a white woman, either on the word of the victim or on a rumor, would be wise to pray for a quick arrest and conviction. At least he’d have a few weeks in a cell and a chance to see the preacher before his hanging. If acquitted he ran the risk of being dragged outside by a white mob and strung up on a sturdy branch of an oak tree in the courthouse square.
Blacks in the Deep South in the 1930s were prohibited from voting, eating in restaurants, or drinking at water fountains reserved for whites. Their children were barred from public parks and swimming pools. African Americans constituted 50 percent of the state of Mississippi and 75 percent of the eighty thousand residents of Bolivar County, but they had no role in mainstream life.9 They crowded into shacks on plantations or into slums on the edge of towns. They sat in the back of the bus, if they could afford the fare, and 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.” Well into the 1950s the black NAACP attorney Robert Carter, who with Thurgood Marshall successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education in the U.S. Supreme Court, was not called “Mister” in a southern court of law; “Bob” was all the judge could manage.10
Fear was the dominant state for people then called “Negroes,” “colored,” or worse. It permeated every aspect of Delta life, including an act as simple as taking advantage of Dorothy’s free medical care. For those few able to read the signs announcing her arrival and for those who had the signs read to them, retaliation by overseers for leaving the fields to visit the clinic was a worry.
For many of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers, some descended from slaves who once worked the same fields, Dorothy’s clinic was the first health care available 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. So at night on the porches of their sagging shacks, sitting on old torn-up sofas damp from the leaden humidity, some parents agreed to take their children to the clinic whatever the repercussions. Others looked for spiritual guidance. On Sunday ladies in ill-fitting dresses trudged to church where the pastors, with the nascent sparks of the fi re of future civil rights battles lighting their sermons, told them God had sent the Negro lady doctor to them, and visiting her was their divine right and duty. As the clinic’s opening day approached, August 21, 1936, it was on everybody’s mind and tongue.
As Dorothy and her volunteer aides made their final preparations for this, their second year of the Mississippi Health Project, their anxiety grew. Their sponsor, the prestigious Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, whose members included the college-educated daughters of the African American elite, had asked its members for one thousand dollars to send Dorothy to neighboring Holmes County, Mississippi, for the first time in 1935.11 The black press hailed their adventure as a triumph. In fact it had been tough going. The landowners pulled up the welcome mat as soon as Dorothy arrived, refusing to allow their 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. Even then the owners wouldn’t let the workers off their land or out of their sight. Dorothy was forced to bring the clinic to the patients by setting up shop directly in the fields, under the watchful eyes of overseers.12
Now, a year later, in his office not far from the old whitewashed courthouse, Dr. Rosier Davis Dedwylder, chief health officer of Bolivar County, had his own headache over Dorothy’s imminent arrival. It was Dedwylder who printed all those posters, stuck them everywhere he could, and made sure they got into the hands of the preachers.13 He knew all about Holmes County the summer before. 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 county 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 local white doctors did not have to deal with them. All Dedwylder had to do was make them see the light.
A longtime southerner and landowner himself, the fifty-eight-year-old Dedwylder lived on the Grove, one of the fi nest plantations in the Delta. With six hundred fertile acres producing King Cotton, he was a wealthy man. Before the Civil War, slaves had waited on his ancestors, and in the years since paid black servants worked in the great white house that crowned his property and sharecroppers plowed his land. Although the doctor’s wife occasionally used what future generations discreetly called “the N word,” the doctor early on shed whatever ingrained biases he may have had against the Negro. As a young physician before World War I, supported by Rockefeller brothers’ funding, Dedwylder had engaged in research to stamp out yellow fever. His intellectual world extended well beyond the steamy streets of Cleveland, Mississippi.14
On the doctor’s desk was the motto he aspired to live by: “Neither look up to the rich nor down to the poor.”15 Dedwylder dreaded leaving his office to grab a sandwich, and not simply because of the smothering heat. At the local luncheonette with his newspaper, as far away as he could get from the all-white clientele, he knew what they’d be whispering: “There goes the nigger lover.”16 Better to just pour another cup of coffee and add an extra sugar cube or two to curb his appetite.
On Monday, August 17, 1936, the entire country was parched; had a copy of the New York Times (with the out-of-town price of four cents) been on his desk, Dedwylder would have seen that even in New York City the thermometer hit 100 degrees. Given that Dorothy was likely to arrive in the middle of a heat wave, Dedwylder planned to be the first to invite her to his property for a tall glass of iced tea. Better yet, dinner. He’d make sure word got around. If that did not set an example for the other owners, nothing would.
Meanwhile, in Washington dc, where Dorothy lived, practiced medicine, and taught at Howard University, she was busily cajoling her husband, her friends, and the project volunteers to lend her their cars to carry the team and supplies one thousand 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 roads.17 Beset by griping from car-owning volunteers over who would pay for repairs in the case of blown tires or broken axles, 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 nay-saying the year before as she prepared to leave for Holmes County, she boldly stated, “I am not discouraged, and I shall do all I can . . . single handed if necessary.”18
But, as it turned out, she did not have to go alone. She and her health project team gathered in Washington on a hot July morning, loaded up their cars, and drove in a caravan into Mississippi—and history.
- Julius Eric Thompson, Lynchings in Mississippi: A History, 1865–1965 (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2007), 92.
- J.D. Ratcliff, “Cotton Field Clinic,” Survey Graphic 29 (September 1940): 465.
- Ratcliff, “Cotton Field Clinic,” 465–67.
- Susan L. Smith, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890–1950 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 158.
- Bernard A. Weisberger, ed., The WPA Guide to America: The Best of 1930s America as Seen by the Federal Writers’ Project. Selections from the American Guide Series, 1935–1941 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 180.
- Marjorie Holloman Parker, notes on the Mississippi Health Project, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Dorothy Boulding Ferebee Papers, Box 183-17, Folder 3.
- Thompson, Lynchings in Mississippi, 98; “20 Lynchings in 1935, Says Tuskegee Inst.,” Chicago Defender, January 4, 1936; “Lynching in America: Statistics, Information, Images,” http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ft rials/shipp/lynchstats.html, accessed August 7, 2014.
- Walter White, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (Notre Dame in: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 232.
- Thompson, Lynchings in Mississippi, 91; Ratcliff, “Cotton Field Clinic,” 466.
- Hon. John Carter, New York State Supreme Court, son of the late U.S. District Judge Robert L. Carter, interview with the author.
- Minutes of the Eighteenth Annual Boule of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, December 27–30, 1935, Richmond VA, 51, AKA Archives, MSRC-HU.
- Ratcliff, “Cotton Field Clinic,” 465–66.
- Ratcliff, “Cotton Field Clinic,” 466.
- Dr. Rosier Davis Dedwylder II interview with the author.
- Elsie Ann Ervin, “Doctor Ded,” unpublished manuscript, Delta State Teachers College, 1951, 9, used with permission of James Ervin and obtained courtesy of Dr. Rosier Davis Dedwylder II.
- Dedwylder interview with the author.
- Black Women Oral History Project, Dorothy Ferebee interview with Merze Tate, December 28 and 31, 1979, OH 31, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, 26, 28 (hereafter, Ferebee Oral History). (Tate later wrote, and placed in parentheses on page 1 of the transcript, that the interview took place on December 30, 1979.)
- Dorothy Boulding Ferebee letter to Ida Louise Jackson, June 30, 1935, MSRC- HU, Ferebee Papers, Box 183-5, Folder 18.