In Mary E. Britton's time, a black girl in Lexington wasn't supposed to grow up to be a teacher. Much less a journalist, a civil rights activist, a social reformer or a medical doctor.
Britton became all of those. "She has an amazing story," said Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor who is editing the forthcoming Kentucky African American Encyclopedia.
Britton was born in 1855 to Henry and Laura Britton, a free black couple who lived on Mill Street in what is now Gratz Park, just a few doors down from the future Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.
From 1871-74, Britton attended Berea College, the first institution of higher learning in Kentucky to admit blacks. About the only profession open to educated women of any race at that time was teaching, and Britton taught in segregated public schools in Lexington and Fayette County, according to a biographical material in The Kentucky Encyclopedia and on the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights' Web site.
As Southern states enacted "Jim Crow" laws in the late 1800s to repeal civil rights afforded to blacks after slavery and to enforce segregation, Britton wrote commentaries opposing those laws for several Lexington newspapers.
"She came out of that Berea tradition of a teacher who becomes a social activist," Smith said.
In a lengthy commentary in the April 19, 1892, edition of The Kentucky Leader, Britton didn't pull any punches in telling the newspaper's largely white readership why the General Assembly should not approve a law requiring blacks and whites to ride in separate railway coaches.
"We are aware that the Assembly has the power to inflict such a law, but is it right?" she wrote. "While we have no longer to chill the blood of our friends by talking of branding irons, chains, whips, blood hounds and to the many physical wrongs and abominations of slavery, this foe of American prejudice renders our lives insecure, our homes unhappy, and crushes out the very sinew of existence — freedom and citizenship."
The Separate Coach Law passed anyway, and Britton turned her attention to another problem afflicting her race: the lack of adequate health care. Britton enrolled in the American Missionary College in Chicago and graduated with a medical degree.
In 1902, she became the first black woman in Lexington to be a licensed physician.
Britton treated patients in her small home at 545 North Limestone. Her specialties included hydrotherapy and electrotherapy — the use of water and electricity to treat illnesses and disease.
It is hard to imagine now just what a pioneer Britton was for her time. Thomas Tolliver lives in a house on East Third Street that once belonged to T.T. Wendell, another early black physician. Tolliver found an old photograph in the attic from a 1910 meeting of the Medical Society of Negro Physicians. The photograph shows Britton on the front row, surrounded by men.
Despite a busy medical practice, Britton remained active in civil rights and the growing women's rights movement. "You talk about a civil rights advocate," Smith said. "Here was a woman in the late 19th century who was really going at it."
Britton was one of 15 black women in Lexington who founded the Colored Orphan Industrial Home on Georgetown Street. The century-old building now houses the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center and the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum. Britton died in 1925 at age 70 and is buried in Cove Haven Cemetery.
Two of her siblings also achieved fame in their time. Brother Tom Britton (1870-1901) was a successful jockey who won the 1891 Kentucky Oaks aboard Miss Hawkins and came within six inches of winning the 1892 Kentucky Derby on Huron. His health and fortunes declined after a bad racing accident, and he eventually killed himself.
Sister Julia Britton Hooks (1852-1942) also attended Berea and became the college's first black faculty member, teaching instrumental music. She moved to Memphis, married Charles Hooks and opened a music school. Among her students was the blues legend W.C. Handy.
Like her sister, Hooks was politically active, becoming a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Her grandson's name might be familiar: Benjamin Hooks was executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992.