February is Black History Month

Black History Month is an annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans, recognizing their central role in U.S. history. We will be celebrating Black History Month throughout February and will share some of those celebrations here.  We’re starting with a weekly highlight of notable historic figures:

Week #1: Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.

Born in 1831, Dr. Crumpler was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania.  She watched her aunt routinely spend her free time caring for sick neighbors and friends, later recounting that “having been reared by a kind aunt . . . whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.”  Perhaps it was inevitable that she moved to Massachusetts in her early 20s to work as a nurse.

Her sedulous labor impressed the various doctors under whom she worked, and several wrote letters of recommendation for her to pursue an M.D.  Not surprisingly, most medical schools at the time barred black students regardless of gender.  But, in the end, she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860.  (The New England Female Medical College later merged with the Boston University School of Medicine in 1873.)  Dr. Crumpler graduated in 1864—her official degree was “Doctress of Medicine.”

After practicing in Boston for a short stint, she traveled down to Virginia once the Civil War concluded so that she could practice in Richmond.  Conditions in the post-war south were of course as volatile as they were dangerous.  Yet Dr. Crumpler reasoned this was “a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”  Along with other black physicians, she tirelessly tended to newly-freed slaves lacking basic necessities, let alone any form of healthcare.  Naturally these physicians faced sharp blowback from the predominately white communities, and Dr. Crumpler eventually relocated back to her former home in Boston a few years later.  She went on to write a book in 1883, titled Book of Medical Discourses, based on her experiences practicing medicine.  Her book offers advice on treating illnesses in infants, children, and women of childbearing age.

Because there is scant biographical information written on Dr. Crumpler, the brief introduction to her book is the primary source of information we have on her life.  Even still, it is hard to deny her role in our history, overcoming gender and racial biases in the pursuit of caring for the less fortunate.

Week #2: Derrick A. Bell, Jr.

Derrick A. Bell, Jr. was a prolific civil rights activist, the first tenured Black professor of law at Harvard Law School, and a pioneer of critical race theory.

Bell set the tone for his career just a few years out of law school, not long after taking a promising position with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.  Unfortunately, the Justice Department became concerned that Bell’s objectivity was compromised due to his association with the NAACP.  So Bell, refusing to give up his membership with the NAACP, chose to leave the Justice Department.  Soon thereafter Thurgood Marshall recruited Bell to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, assigning him to Mississippi.  For years he provided legal support to local schools, voting rights activists, and the Freedom Riders down in Mississippi.  He also supervised over 300 desegregation cases in the state.

His reputation, intellect, and stature as an activist led to a career in academia.  After working for the University of Southern California from 1967 to 1971, he became a lecturer at Harvard Law School where he made a name for himself as a dynamic thought leader.  He established civil rights curricula and authored the reputable Race, Racism and American Law.  Bell stepped away from Harvard for a few years in the 1980s (so that he could serve as the Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law), but returned in 1986 and quickly staged a five-day sit-in in his office.  The impetus for this sit-in was Harvard’s decision to pass up two professors for tenure—Bell believed this was predicated on these professors publishing articles on critical race theory.

More on critical race theory here: although today’s political discourse throws around this cross-disciplinary examination with regularity, Bell was one of its original founders.  Specifically, Bell  advocated his “interest-convergence theory of racial reform,” which holds that “progress for African-Americans will come only when that progress benefits powerful whites as well.”  Put differently, “[i]f the coalition has a common-end objective, the coalition is likely to last longer.”  Professor Lani Guinier, the first female Black professor at Harvard Law School, told The New York Times that Bell “set the agenda in many ways for scholarship on race in the academy, not just the legal academy.”

Bell died in 2011 at the age of 80.  Richard Revesz, dean of New York University School of Law where Bell taught for several years, said that “the law school community has been profoundly shaped by Derrick’s unwavering passion for civil rights and community justice, and his leadership as a scholar, teacher, and activist.”  Revesz’s encomium is only partly true, because Bell’s activism ripples well beyond the law school community; indeed, in some ways, it reaches all of us to each and every day.

Week #3: Patrick Clark: The First Black Chef to Win a James Beard Best Chef Award

Clark’s relatively short life spanned from 1955 until 1998.  At 25, he served as the original chef for Odeon in New York City, producing fine nouvelle cuisine at a time when few Black chefs embraced this style of cooking.  His food received critical and universal acclaim, but his culinary prowess came with a bittersweet routine: patrons would praise the amazing food, want to meet the chef who concocted the meal, and then be surprised to learn their chef was Black.  He didn’t let this bother him, at least partly because Clark was on his growing reputation put him on track to be a beloved celebrity chef.  There were not many celebrity chefs at the time, let alone one who was Black.

In 1988, as he was expanding the scope of his oeuvre to the culinary riches of American regional cooking, Clark opened his own restaurant on the Upper East Side.  This was an enormous gamble given the 1987 market crash that, like every crash, deals a sockdolager to the restaurant industry.  Ultimately, the gamble didn’t pay off—Clark’s restaurant closed in 1990.  But that didn’t discourage him.  He relocated to Beverly Hills for a brief stint before returning to the east coast, taking over the kitchen at the Hay-Adams Hotel.  (For the west-coast Lasherites, this is a historic, luxury hotel in D.C. that is regularly frequented by presidents and heads of state; Kevin Spacey’s character stayed there in House of Cards, too, for whatever that’s worth.)  In 1994, Clark was awarded the James Beard Best Chef award for the Mid-Atlantic Region, and the following year he returned to New York to be the executive chef at Tavern on the Green.  He stepped away a few years later when he began suffering from congestive heart failure.

Anthony Bourdain, with his panache flair, said this of Clark in Kitchen Confidential: “Patrick for sure impressed the hell out of us. He was kind of famous; he was big and black; most importantly he was American, not some cheese-eating, surrender specialist Froggie. Patrick Clark, whether he would have appreciated it or not, was our home-town hero, our Joe DiMaggio – a shining example that it could be done.”  If you’re interested in a cookbook with some of his signature dishes, you can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Patrick-Clark-Tribute-Cuisine/dp/1580080731.