In this new biography, author Diane Kiesel tells the story of Dr. Dorothy Boulding, an African American woman ahead of her time. The portrait she paints speaks to us today. Kiesel vividly describes African American life in the rural south and progressive north, over a century, beginning in the 1890s and culminating in the 1990.
The book focuses on the lives of Boulding and those around her. While Boulding’s name may not be as familiar to us as others who worked in the civil rights movement, her contributions were no less important, and in some cases more life changing, than those of her contemporaries.
Born in 1896 in Virginia, and raised in relatively comfortable circumstances, Boulding excelled in school and was accepted to Tufts Medical School in 1920. She was one of only four black doctors in a class of 136 medical students.
After graduation, Boulding move to Washington DC, at the time a segregated city, and began an internship at Freedmen’s Hospital, which served the black community and was affiliated with Howard University. That setting fostered Boulding’s interest in public health concerns, and particularly those in the black community.
As one of the few women in medicine, she also became interested in women’s issues. With the help of other similarly determined black women, Boulding founded the Mississippi Health Project. At the time, and especially in the rural south, there was little health care available in many black communities. As Kiesel traces Boulding’s travels through Mississippi in the 1930s, you feel every bump on the dirt roads she traveled and see the faces of the hundreds of field hands and share croppers for whom she provided much needed care. Boulding’s patients experienced living and physical conditions, which bring to mind a third world country instead of the United States.
Upon her return to Washington D.C., Boulding campaigned tirelessly to provide better healthcare for blacks in the South. At this juncture, and throughout the rest of her life, she crossed paths with many well-known figures. For example, not only did she meet with Eleanor Roosevelt, but she succeeded in interesting Mrs. Roosevelt in the health concerns of the black community. She was on the platform at FDR’s 1945 inauguration. Boulding was invited to the Kennedy White House.
The book also chronicles Boulding’s love-hate relationship with Dorothy Height, a well-known leader of the civil rights movement. Height invited Boulding to Selma in 1963; the women drove with two white women, and were prepared to say they were cooks if the police stopped the car during the continuing days of Jim Crow laws.
Wherever she went, Boulding spoke out about the need for public healthcare, a conversation that still takes place more than 70 years after she began it.
Boulding also found herself supporting women’s issues with an emphasis on a woman’s right to choose. Her passionate speeches on the need for education about contraceptive use could be inserted word for word into today’s conversation on privacy and women’s rights.
Boulding married Dr. Claude Thurston Ferebee, who practiced dentistry. They had two children. The reader follows with interest how a black middle class family navigated the social and political climates of the 1930s to the present. The family dynamics of the Boulding/Ferebee households range from the mundane to the scandalous.
Kiesel is a fine writer. A former journalist, she is an acting Supreme Court Justice assigned to the Integrated Domestic Violence Court in Bronx County and also the author of “Domestic Violence: Law, Policy, and Practice,” published by LexisNexis.
Kiesel’s reporting on and writing about Boulding will cause you to reflect about where this country has been and the directions in which it is going. Boulding is a worthy subject whose life merits a thorough telling. The author’s painstaking research and clear narrative style does her subject justice. It is an engaging and enjoyable read.
CSPAN-3, History TV, will present a discussion of the book Kiesel gave to the Massachusetts Historical Society at www.c-span.org/series/?ahtv.