Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dr. Justina Ford at Alabama A&M and Beyond

Ford, Justina Laurena Carter (22 Jan. 1871-14 Oct. 1952), physician, was born in Knoxville, Illinois, and grew up in Galesburg in the west central part of the state. She was the seventh child in the family, and her mother is reputed to have been a nurse. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, her father was born in Kentucky and her mother in Tennessee

In a profile published in Negro Digest two years before her death, Ford declared a very early interest in medicine. “I wouldn’t play with others unless we played hospital, and I wouldn’t play even that unless they let me be the doctor. I didn’t know the names of any medicines…” (quoted in Harris, 42) She also remembered liking to prepare chickens for meals in order to see their insides and visiting sick neighbors to help them. Ford grew up to pursue that childhood interest in medicine and became the second African-American female physician in Alabama and the first in Colorado.

            Little else is known of Ford’s early life. Ford attended Hering Medical College in Chicago, one of several schools in the U.S. (others are known in St. Louis, Missouri, and Fort Wayne, Indiana) named after the German immigrant Constantine Hering (1800-1880), who is often called the “father of American homeopathy.”  She graduated in 1899. 

By that time about twenty percent of physicians in the United States were graduates of homeopathic schools. Almost 1600 black physicians were practicing in the U.S. at the time; fewer than 200 were women. The first female African American physician in the U.S., Rebecca Lee Crumpler, had graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864.

            In Ford’s 1900 U.S. Census record, enumerated on June 7, she is listed in Chicago’s 4th Ward as one of six residents of a boarding house.  Also listed is John E. Ford, 39, a clergyman born in Kentucky, as were both his parents. This man is presumably Ford’s first husband; how they met and what eventually happened to him is currently unknown. 

Sometime later that year Ford traveled south to Alabama to take the state’s medical certification exam. Why she picked such a distant southern state to begin her practice remains a mystery, although the presence of Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute may have been factors. Washington had recruited Dr. Cornelius N. Dorsette to set up practice in the state capitol of Montgomery in 1884 as one of Alabama’s earliest black physicians. In 1891 Washington persuaded Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon to come to the state and serve as the resident physician for Tuskegee Institute’s faculty and students; she remained in that post until 1894. When she passed her grueling medical certification exam in August, 1891, she became the first female physician of any race to be certified in Alabama.

            Instead of Tuskegee, Ford settled in Normal, just outside the city of Huntsville in north Alabama. Normal was the site of the State Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, a land-grant school founded in 1875. She was certified to practice medicine after passing the test administered by the Madison County Board of Medical Examiners sometime after the census count in Chicago in June, 1900, and before March 31, 1901; she is listed in the 1901 Transactions of the state medical society as a successful candidate. Joining some 55 black physicians in Alabama, she apparently became the college’s resident physician. The archives at what is now known as Alabama A&M University seems to have only one item related to Ford, a “sick list” dated December 30 and 31, 1902, giving the names of people she vaccinated.

            About this time Ford decided to move her practice elsewhere and chose Denver, Colorado. She may have hoped a black female physician would have better opportunities in the West rather than the Jim Crow South, where even male black physicians could have difficulties developing a practice.

            Ford’s decision proved to be the right one for her. In a career that lasted more than four decades, she built a formidable reputation for her skills in obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics. Ford remained a distinct minority, however. In 1950, two years before her death, only seven black doctors were active in Colorado; she was the only woman among them. She still had to overcome discrimination; for most of her years in practice black physicians and patients were not allowed at Denver General Hospital. Toward the end of her career she did receive admitting privileges at the hospital and membership in the Denver and Colorado medical societies.

            As Ford’s practice in Denver began, she traveled to patients’ homes by horse and buggy and then bicycle. Later she bought a car and hired a driver; Ford herself never learned to drive an automobile. She also used taxis to reach her patients, who lived both in the city and in often difficult to reach rural areas. In addition to fellow blacks, Ford treated poor whites, Mexicans, Greeks, Koreans, Hindus, Japanese and any others who sought care from her in that diverse western town. She accepted whatever patients could pay in cash or goods and claimed to have delivered 7000 babies (only 15% black!) in her long career.

            Whether Ford’s first husband accompanied her to Alabama and Colorado is currently unknown. She is known to have married Alfred Allen after her arrival in Denver, but she retained the name by which she was so well-known. Her religious home in Denver was the Zion Baptist Church. Early in her career Ford bought a nine-room house at 2335 Arapahoe Street, where she lived until her death. Although in later years she began to lose her sight, Ford treated patients until just weeks before she died. She was survived by her husband; the pair had no children.

            Shortly before her death, Ford was given the Human Relations Award by the Cosmopolitan Club of Denver. That award, plus her admission to the Denver and Colorado medical societies in 1950 meant that Ford received some recognition in her lifetime for her long career of patient care and self-sacrifice.

            Other recognitions have come since her death. In 1975 the Warren Library, an east Denver branch of the city’s public library system, was re-named the Ford-Warren Library. In February, 1984, the house on Arapahoe Street was moved to 3091 California Street to avoid demolition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the home is now the location of the Black America West Museum and Heritage Center. Her first floor office and waiting room remain as she used them. The Dr. Justina Ford Medical Society was formed in 1987 to support black physicians training in Denver. The Colorado Medical Society, which for so many years rejected Ford as a member, passed a resolution in 1989 declaring her a “Medical Pioneer of Colorado.”

            Ford’s long career exemplifies the status of both female and African American physicians in America in the first half of the twentieth century. As Ford began her practice in 1900, there were about 7000 female physicians in the United States, or nearly five percent of all doctors. That percentage remained steady until the 1970's when it began the rise that continues today. In 1920, almost midway through her career, she was one of only 65 African American female physicians in the United States. The U.S. Census that year counted almost 3900 black male doctors. By 1930 the total number of black physicians had fallen to 3805.

            Justina Ford had to overcome both race and gender prejudice to carve out a successful practice. Black male and white female physicians had their own problems with obtaining an education, developing a practice, and relating to a white male medical establishment that mostly ostracized them. Ford, like other black female doctors, had a double set of problems to face. Perhaps both her personal drive and the fact that she settled in Denver, with its multi-racial population, made her remarkable career possible.


 “Dr. Justina Ford: Honored as First black Female Physician in Colorado.” Colorado Medicine 86(4): 60, February 15, 1989

Harris, Mark. “The Forty Years of Justina Ford.” Negro Digest 8:42-45, March 1950

Johnson, Connie. “Dr. Justina Ford: Preserving the Legacy.” Odyssey West 7(2):4-5, March-April 1988

Lohse, Joyce B. Justina Ford, Medical Pioneer (2004)

Riley, Marilyn Griggs. “Denver’s Pioneering Physician and ‘Baby Doctor”: Justina L. Ford, M.D., 1871-1952” in Marilyn Griggs Riley, High Altitude Attitudes: Six Savy Colorado Women (2006)

Smith, Jessie Carney. “Justina L. Ford (1871-1952) Physician, humanitarian” in Jessie Carney Smith, ed. Notable Black American Women Book II (1996)

Tollette, Wallace Yvonne. Justina Lorena Ford, M.D.: Colorado’s First Black Woman Doctor (2005)

Tollette, Wallace Yvonne. Justina’s Dream (2005)

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