Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee
October 10, 1898 – September 14, 1980
Notable: Doctor and Activist
Dorothy Celeste Boulding was born in Norfolk, Virginia one of her parents’ Florence and Benjamin Boulding’s two children. At least some of Boulding’s ancestors had been enslaved though sources vary as to whether this included her parents or just her grandparents. Regardless of the details and despite the harrowing experiences of her ancestors, Boulding’s family now included several professionals, entrepreneurs, and politicians. Her father was a superintendent for the U.S. Railway Mail Service and her mother’s father was a successful businessman and politician.
During Boulding’s childhood, the family relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, and settled in Beacon Hill. Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood with several professionals greatly influenced Boulding. She was surrounded by lawyers but Boulding had early aspirations to become a doctor. Encouraged by her mother and aunt, Boulding began unofficially practicing medicine as a child and her first patients were injured animals.
After graduating with honors from English High School, Boulding attended Simmons College from which she also graduated with honors. For medical school, Boulding enrolled at Tufts University School of Medicine. Boulding was one of five women in a class of 137 students. Like the other female students, Boulding had to contend with sexist attitudes but faced additional mistreatment due to her race.
She overcame the environment at Tufts and graduated as one of the top five students in her class. Unfortunately, Boulding would continue to face obstacles in her quest to become a doctor. Boulding was shut out of White-run residency programs as a photograph was required for candidacy. But she was thankfully accepted by Washington D.C.’s Black-run Freedman’s Hospital (later a part of Howard University).
After completing her remaining training and exam requirements, Boulding continued at Freedman’s. In addition to her work as an obstetrician, Boulding also founded a practice to serve a neighborhood that lacked emergency services. Boulding was ahead of her time as she offered birth control and sex education for women. She later obtained funding to create Southeast Neighborhood House, a medical and social services clinic in an underserved low-income part of the city. A sister organization, the Southeast Neighborhood Society was later established to provide childcare assistance for working single mothers.
The late 1920s to early 1930s were a busy period for Boulding. She became Howard’s medical physician to women in 1929. While working at Howard, Boulding met Claude Thurston Ferebee, a professor in the School of Dentistry. The two married in 1930 and the union produced one set of twins, a boy, and a girl.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Ferebee joined the Mississippi Health Project. Due to systematic racism and segregation, it was incredibly difficult for rural Black Southerners to obtain medical care. The Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority of which Ferebee was a member provided support for members to travel into the South to address immunization, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, and other ailments within the local Black population. They did this under the threat of violence and intimidation from White supremacists.
The Project received praise and brought both Ferebee and AKA national attention. Ferebee was appointed leader of AKA, was invited to the White House, and featured on radio broadcasts. As if she wasn’t active enough, Ferebee became involved with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in the 1940s. She became that organization’s leader at the end of the decade and continued its work to address civil rights and inequality issues. But Ferebee also tailored the position to her strengths by using her platform to bring attention to healthcare issues.
Unfortunately, 1950 would be a year of personal turmoil. Ferebee’s daughter died of flu complications, she was only 18 years old. Her 20-year marriage also ended around this time. A major issue was that Ferebee’s professional success and notoriety were not viewed positively by her husband. Ferebee refused to cut back on her work as her husband requested. Grieving the loss of their daughter likely also contributed to their marital issues and the couple divorced.
The 1950s and 1960s would see Ferebee continue her work while also joining new groups. She was appointed to positions by both President Kennedy and President Johnson and also received an appointment from the mayor of D.C. Over the years Ferebee was awarded numerous awards in recognition of her many decades of providing medical care and public service.
Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee died on September 14, 1980, from congestive heart failure.
- Brandman, Mariana. 2021. “Biography: Dorothy Boulding Ferebee.” National Women’s History Museum. October 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/dorothy-boulding-ferebee.
- “Dorothy Boulding Ferebee: A Pioneer in Civil Rights and Health Care.” 2022. AAUW. March 10, 2022. https://www.aauw.org/resources/faces-of-aauw/dorothy-boulding-ferebee/.
- “Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee.” 2015. Changing the Face of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. June 3, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_109.html.
- Mack, Dwayne. 2021. “Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee (1898-1980).” Blackpast.org. October 12, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/ferebee-dorothy-celeste-boulding-1898-1980/.
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