The conditions Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler encountered as she arrived to tend to those in need of medical attention. Ruins of Richmond in 1865. (Library of Congress)

Richmond, Virginia, was a wreck at the end of the American Civil War. War had raged all around and culminated with a nine-month siege of the city of Petersburg with a strangling effect on Richmond’s battered economy. Horses commonly seen in more fortunate cities were scarce in Richmond. The war had taken most of them. The city had experienced a bread riot when hungry residents, primarily women with children, rampaged through the city. About 10 percent of the town had burned down when, in April of 1865, Confederate soldiers lit fires to burn up supplies as the Confederate government escaped, and the Union army moved in and eventually put out the flames. There were shortages of everything, and inflation was rampant.

In this environment, a young woman from Boston arrived with her second husband and her medical degree. Not only was Rebecca Lee Crumpler one of only three hundred female doctors in the United States, but she was also the first and only African American woman to hold such a degree at the time. It was the deprivation caused by the war that drove her to Richmond. The city was, as she described later, “The proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” She was a devoted Baptist.

There could not be two more different cities than Boston, Massachusetts, and Richmond, Virginia, in 1865. Boston was the hotbed of the abolition movement, and supporters of that movement made it possible for Rebecca Crumpler to get a scholarship to the New England Female Medical College. Richmond was the fallen capital of the Confederacy, a vanquished government committed to the longevity of slavery. 

Richmond was hostile to its African American citizens in the years immediately following the war. The Freedman’s Bureau records show numerous occurrences of the arrest of Black men for no other reason than not having a pass. In the summer of 1865, the same year the Crumplers arrived in the city, four Black citizens got out of the way of two approaching Confederate veterans. Whites physically attacked them for not getting completely off the sidewalk and standing in the street until the white men passed by. 

During the four years she spent in Richmond, Dr. Crumpler not only had this kind of conduct to be wary of, but she also faced inappropriate, discriminatory behavior toward her because she was a woman. Male doctors refused to work with her, and pharmacists refused to fill her prescriptions. And yet, Dr. Crumpler continued to work for the medical division of the Freedman’s Bureau, administering to sick and hurt indigents.

Returning to Boston in 1869, she continued practicing medicine for a while and then wrote. “A Book of Medical Discourses.” Dr. Crumpler wrote about her life in the book’s introduction.

Both her husbands were from Virginia. Her first husband, Wyatt Lee, was from Prince George County, and historians assume he escaped slavery and made his way to Boston. He was thirty years old when he married Rebecca in 1852. Wyatt Lee died in 1863 of pulmonary tuberculosis, and his wife interrupted her medical studies to attend to him. Rebecca married Arthur Crumpler, who managed to escape his life as an enslaved person in Southampton County by finding refuge on a United States Navy gunboat. The couple married on May 24, 1865, before moving to Richmond.

Her book focused on preventive care and advice to women about taking care of children’s health. The doctor’s concern was the infant mortality that mothers with the proper knowledge could prevent. Most of what she wrote about is still relevant today.

Steve Bailey grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, was educated in Minnesota, and taught middle school for thirty-two years in Virginia. He can be contacted at vamarcopolo.com.

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