Mary E. Britton (1855-1925) was a student at Berea College circa. 1870-1874. A public school teacher and activist, Britton later earned a medical degree and became the first African-American female doctor in the state of Kentucky, practicing in Lexington.
Mary was born in Kentucky, on Mills Street in what is now Lexington’s Grazt Park Historical District. Her parents, Laura Marshall and Henry Harrison Britton, were both free African Americans living in the slave state of Kentucky. Her mother, Laura Marshall, was a freed slave of a biracial ancestry whose father was the well-known Kentucky public official Thomas F. Marshall. Laura Marshall was a well-educated, intelligent woman and a talented singer and musician. Laura encouraged and instilled a love for education, music and public service in both of her daughters. In short, her family was well respected, honored and trustworthy within the circle of prominent and affluent Kentucky families.
Mary grew up in Lexington and, along with her sister Julia Britton, studied at Mr. Gibson’s school for colored youths in Louisville, Kentucky. Although she grew up as a free individual, she and her siblings still experienced and witnessed the racial discrimination and inequality toward black Americans. Nevertheless, she and her siblings received the best education one could ask for in Kentucky. She attended the Berea College Academy School from 1871-1874. Since at that time the only available and possible career studies for females of any race were teaching and nursing, Mary Britton and Julia Britton Hooks chose to study teaching. There is no concrete evidence that either sister graduated from Berea and may have withdrawn because of deaths in the family. Their parents unexpectedly passed away, one after the other, before the sisters’ graduation. After leaving the school, Mary Britton sought employment as a teacher in order to support herself financially. In 1876 she taught in Chilesburg, Kentucky. Later she continued to teach within the Lexington public school system.
Although employed, Mary did not stop pursuing her higher education, and she attended and graduated with a medical degree from the American Missionary College in Chicago, Illinois. Since she had a great interest in medicine, she also studied at Howard Medical School in Washington D.C., and at Meharry Medical College of Nashville, Tennessee. She then began practicing medicine from her Lexington home. She specialized in hydrotherapy and electrotherapy, and in 1902 she became Lexington’s first African American woman licensed to practice medicine. Due to Jim Crow laws, healthcare and medical treatment became even less available for African Americans at white hospitals. Thus, Britton made healthcare possible for African Americans. She treated her patients by using water and electricity.
Mary Britton was extremely active in the public life of her community. She actively participated in the Suffrage Movement, and later she served as president of the Woman’s Improvement Club, which aimed to improve women’s social status, living conditions, and economic improvements. In 1877, as a member of the Kentucky Negro Education Association, she worked diligently to improve African Americans’ living conditions through legislative action. Moreover, from 1892 she served as the founding director of the Colored Orphan Industrial Home, an organization that, in collaboration with the Ladies Orphan Society, helped impoverished orphans and homeless elderly women with food, clothing, housing accommodations, and education and guidance on to improve their lives. The building of that same Industrial Home is present to this day as the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center and the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum. It is a building which has served as a nursing home and hospital through an entire century.
Moreover, in her writings for the American Citizen, the Daily Transcript, Our Women and Children, and the Lexington Leader, Mary Britton opposed Jim Crow segregation laws, and the usage of alcohol and tobacco, and she expressed the necessity for societal reformation. In the 1892 edition of the Kentucky Leader, Britton argued against the passage of the Separate Coach Law that had been implemented the previous year. The Separate Coach Law required that Americans of different races ride in separate – precisely, segregated – train cars, which supposedly kept every race equal, but not together in unity. Thus, Britton campaigned against the idea that all races could be equal as long as they remained separated.
Mary Britton’s courage and compassion served as an inspiration to many within and beyond her community. One of them was author and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who dedicated a lengthy poem to Ms. Britton titled simply “To Miss Mary Britton.” The poem’s third verse says:
"Give us to lead our cause
More noble souls like hers,
The memory of whose deed
Each feeling bosom stirs;
Whose fearless voice and strong
Rose to defend her race,
Roused Justice from her sleep,
Drove Prejudice from place."
Mary Britton was an educator, physician, journalist, and civil rights activist who dedicated herself fully to the good of her people. She was another individual who has reached a peak with her dedication to social work and civil activism. Mary Britton was not the only one who became a distinguished humanitarian and civil rights activist of her time. Her sister Julia Britton Hooks, also a Berea College graduate and a music prodigy, was part of the Memphis branch of the NAACP and a civil rights activist against the segregation in public schools. The two sisters worked together in their public service and activism, achieving much in their respective communities. Their brother Tom Britton was a jockey of a great fame and talent. In his career as a jockey, he won the Kentucky Oaks on Miss Hawkins in 1891, and finished second in the Kentucky Derby on Huron in 1892.
Mary Britton died at the age of seventy in 1925. She was buried in Cove Haven Cemetery. She was another African American woman many years ahead of her time. Gerald Smith, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, described Mary Britton as one who “came out of that Berea tradition of a teacher who becomes a social activist.” Mary Britton truly believed in and followed the mission of Berea College. She embodied the change which American society needed.
Edited March 2023