Honoring the Trailblazers
Dr. Harriet Rice: A Woman of Valor
WAAD Annual Meeting: Sunday, June 25, 2023
Cleo Hereford ‘09
During this year’s annual meeting, we wanted to highlight a true trailblazer - Dr. Harriet Rice, the first African American woman to graduate from Wellesley College. Rice was born just one year after the Civil War ended in 1866 in Newport, Rhode Island to father George, a steward for the Newport Steamship Company and mother Lucinda. A talented student, Rice achieved the highest class ranking in Greek at Newport’s racially integrated Rogers High School. After graduating in 1882, she matriculated at Wellesley a year later and was one of only three black students. One can only imagine what it was like to be a black woman at Wellesley during the 1880s but College archives do provide some insight. In 1935, the Alumnae Association sent Dr. Rice a biographical sheet asking about physical or other handicap to which she responded “Yes! I’m colored which is worse than any crime in this God blessed Christian country!”
Nevertheless, she persisted.
After receiving her degree from Wellesley in 1887, Rice, following in her brother’s footsteps, earned a medical degree from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1891 at a time when few women pursued medicine. She then sought additional training while interning at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Her advanced medical training is especially notable when one considers that up to 1904 only half of all medical graduates of any race or gender received postgraduate training making Dr. Rice a highly qualified physician.
As expected, given the post Reconstruction time period, black physicians faced rampant racism and discrimination often relegated to only working with black populations while female doctors, including white women, were often denied appointments at hospitals due to gender based discrimination. Rice was amongst only the second generation of black female physicians but also female physicians in general in the country. (For those interested, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to become a formerly-trained physician receiving a medical degree in 1864). By 1896, there were just 115 Black female doctors in the country.
Despite this, she forged ahead determined to be a successful physician. Though largely prohibited from practicing medicine in any American hospital as an African American woman, she found a way to utilize her skills providing medical treatment and care to low income individuals at Hull House, an organization offering a variety of social services, on Chicago’s Near West Side. It was in Chicago where Rice worked alongside famous social worker, women’s suffrage leader and first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Jane Addams. Much different than the Chicago we know today, however, only 1.3% of Chicago’s population in the 1890s was black and Rice faced discrimination, particularly from Hull House’s white European immigrant clientele (black residents were limited to residence on the South Side, far from Hull House). Further, working at the settlement house offered little in the way of financial compensation, upward mobility or recognition for Rice; at one point, she was listed as a secretary at the organization when she was in fact running the medical clinic. Rice sought other professional opportunities and, in 1897, she became the only doctor at the Chicago Maternity Hospital and Training School for Nursery Maids providing obstetric care.
After years working in the medical field in Chicago and later Boston, Dr. Rice opted to serve on the frontlines as a military physician for three years during World War I. Throughout the war, which lasted from 1914 through 1918, women of color contributed to the effort both as individuals and through organizations such as the YMCA. At the start of the war, Rice attempted to join the American Red Cross effort to provide medical services to American troops but was ultimately denied because of her race. Again, she persisted contacting the French government who leapt at the opportunity to have an experienced medical doctor available to treat French troops. Joining the effort at 49 years old, Rice served on hospital duty in France from January 1915 until just after Armistice in 1918, longer than most American troops. This period in Rice’s life finally afforded her the opportunity to both practice medicine and be recognized for her work, opportunities that had previously alluded her. As a result of American racism, she made important contributions to the Allied war effort, not under the American flag, but the French. In 1919, Rice was awarded the Medal of French Gratitude at the French Embassy in Washington, DC for outstanding service in French military hospitals treating wounded soldiers. The medal was specifically created to express gratitude by the French government to non-military participants who, in part, had performed an act of exceptional dedication in the presence of the enemy during the war. After returning home, Dr. Rice continued to work in medicine before retiring in West Somerville, MA.
Dr. Harriet Rice, Class of 1887, passed away in 1958 at age 92 in Worcester, MA and is buried in Newport, RI alongside her parents in the God’s Little Ace section of the Common Burying Ground. She is remembered as “a woman of valor.”
● Dr. Harriet Rice, Class of 1887 (Davis Museum)