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A story incomplete: Virginia Alexander's life among Friends

Acting in Faith  |  By Greg Elliott, Feb 25, 2015
Virginia Margaret Alexander in her office, 1934

Dr. Virginia M. Alexander in her office, 1934 

Photo: From the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives

Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble began her research on Dr. Virginia M. Alexander (1899-1949) because she is an unsung hero in the field of medicine. Dr. Alexander founded the Aspiranto Health Home in her own house in North Philadelphia, where she operated an integrated, socialized medical practice that provided much needed medical care to the black community; she did important research on the “social, economic, and health problems of North Philadelphia” with startling results; she worked on the Race Relations Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to integrate Philadelphia Hospitals; and in 1936, she was the first black student to attend Yale School of Public Health.

But as Dr. Gamble continued her research, she realized that “Virginia Alexander’s story would be woefully incomplete without a detailed examination of her membership in the Society of Friends..."

After reading just a fraction of Dr. Gamble's research, I believe that the history of the Society of Friends is "woefully incomplete" without Virginia Alexander. She was a pioneer in addressing inequalities in the Philadelphia medical system, and yet she experienced racism and resistance among Friends. I see many parallels in Friend Virginia's life to the experiences of Friends of Color today, and I hope that Friends find in her a hero worth singing about and a story worth learning from. 

(The following is a summary of Dr.Gamble’s paper, “Medicine, Religion, and Social Activism: The Life of Dr. Virginia M. Alexander, A Forgotten Black Quaker." All quotations are Dr. Gamble’s unless otherwise stated. Her forthcoming book on Virginia Alexander is expected to be published in 2017. I would like to thank Dr. Gamble for her research, her guidance, and her generosity.)

Virginia Margaret Alexander attended her first meeting for worship at Race Street Meeting as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in 1917. Gamble writes,

Convenience and curiosity had prompted the visit. Virginia worked as a waitress near the meetinghouse and since she did not have time to attend Zion Baptist [the church she grew up attending in North Philadelphia] she and a black friend tried Race Street. They arrived late and did not even know what to expect. Yet, from that very first meeting Virginia discovered spiritual connectedness and found that Quakerism suited her religious temperament. She later recalled that she had "experienced an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, and…was convinced that this was worship at its best.”

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in only three years, Virginia continued attending Race Street and participated in various Quaker gatherings and lectures until she left for Kansas City in 1925 to complete her hospital internship because no Philadelphia hospitals would accept her as an intern. After she returned to Philadelphia, she founded Aspiranto Health Home in 1930, a small, integrated hospital in North Philadelphia that was ahead of its time as a socialized medical practice. Many of her “white patients were members of the Society of Friends."

Upon returning to Philadelphia, she deepened her relationship with the Quakers. She had close friends at Race and Arch Street Monthly Meetings; she joined the “Fireside Club,” an interracial group of white Friends and African Americans dedicated to “interracial understanding;” and she was the first black person nominated to the Race Relations Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting – a committee that until then had remained entirely white due to the concerns of some of its white members.

Dr. Virginia M. Alexander portrait photograph, ca. 1923 (From the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives)Virginia served on the Race Relations Committee for several years and had many successes pushing the committee to address discrimination in Philadelphia hospitals, which led to the appointment of the first black doctor at Philadelphia General Hospital. But Virginia also experienced many frustrating and painful setbacks, such as her unsuccessful fight for the admission of one of her black patients to Friends Hospital. Although she was the one advocating for her patient’s needs, the Race Relations Committee created a subcommittee to petition Friends Hospital that did not include her. Friends Hospital refused to admit Virginia’s patient, and she never received proper medical attention. Gamble writes, “This episode at Friends Hospital is a graphic reminder of the split in the Society of Friends over its role in combatting racism in the early twentieth century."

After being appointed to the Race Relations Committee, Virginia decided to seek membership at Germantown Friends Monthly Meeting. Despite her already respected status in the Quaker community, Friends were once again “split” in their support of her membership. In 1931, over one year after she applied (and fourteen years after her first Quaker meeting), she was finally approved for membership and became the only African-American member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at that time.

Virginia was a very active member of her monthly and yearly meeting. She attended Yearly Meeting Annual sessions, participated in the Young Friends Movement (serving two years on its executive committee), was a lead organizer of the Institute of Race Relations in 1935 (co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the Race Relations Committee of PYM), and was a delegate to the 1937 Friends World Conference.

While practicing medicine in Washington D.C., Virginia sought to have her beloved three-year-old niece, Mary Elizabeth, admitted to Germantown Friends School in 1938. Mary Elizabeth had attended First Day School at Germanton Monthly Meeting, and Virginia was hopeful that her status in the meeting would provide enough sway for her niece to be the first black student admitted to Germantown Friends School. The school denied Mary Elizabeth’s application, even after Virginia drove to Philadelphia from Washington to meet with school officials.

Dr. Alexander (third from left) in group portrait of hospital staff, 1926 (From the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives)

Gamble writes that “the rejection embraced her with profound grief. Eleven days after the meeting she wrote her funeral wishes on the back of an envelope. She wanted a Quaker-style memorial, but not in a meetinghouse.” Despite invitations from the school committee to continue bringing Mary Elizabeth to First Day School, she refused.

Almost a decade later, Germantown Friends School admitted its first black student.

Virginia remained an active member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting until her death in 1949: “Despite racial discrimination, personal disappointments, and emotional pain,” Virginia attended “her last monthly meeting just two weeks before her final hospitalization."

Given all of these disappointments and frustrations, Gamble asks, “Why did [Virginia] stay a Quaker?”

Gamble came to the conclusion that, “The primary reason that Virginia Alexander remained a Quaker was that it suited her religious temperament." She had deep, spiritual experiences in silent meeting for worship that were too transformative to allow the racism and resistance of many in both the monthly and yearly meeting to dissuade her from attending and maintaining her membership. She had to make “a distinction between the principles of Quakerism and the actions of Quakers” in order to continue on as a Quaker herself. 

Sadie T.M. Alexander and Virginia behind Houston Hall, ca. 1920 (From the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives)

Even though Dr. Alexander graduated from two elite universities, cared for Quakers in her medical practice, and was very active in Quaker circles, she was still not welcomed by all into a religious community that she claimed as her own. In this way, her story reminds us not just of the struggles that she and many Friends of Color continue to face today, but also that black lives matter – her life matters – and although her voice is only now being recovered, her story speaks to us and calls us to live out our principles. Our community suffers whenever those who wish to make Quakerism their home are prevented from feeling truly at home among us.

Queries

If we as Friends truly believe in the power of meeting for worship as a vehicle for profound spiritual experience, how can we rid our meetings/churches of racism, white supremacy, and European dominance so that all members and attenders can feel at home there?

What do the images and quotations on your meeting/church walls say about the histories and people you value? How does your First Day school and adult education honor the stories of black Quakers throughout the year?

If we are attempting to be Friends of the Truth, are we willing to be Friends of the Difficult Truths? For instance, are we willing to acknowledge William Penn’s participation in slavery and colonization as much as we are willing to acknowledge his contributions to Quakerism and civil society?

Do you think Dr. Virginia Alexander’s experience in the Religious Society of Friends would be much different if she lived today? Would it be different in your meeting/church?

Source

Gamble, Vanessa Northington. “Medicine, Religion, and Social Activism: The Life of Dr. Virginia M. Alexander, A Forgotten Black Quaker.” Presented at the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists, June 16 2014. Westtown School, West Chester, PA. 

About Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble

Vanessa Northington Gamble, MD, PhD is University Professor of Medical Humanities and Professor of Health Policy and American Studies at the George Washington University.  She is the first woman and African American to hold this prestigious, endowed faculty position. She is also Professor of Health Policy in the Milken Institute School of Public Health and Professor of American Studies in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.  Throughout her career Dr. Gamble has worked to promote equity and justice in medicine and public health.  A physician, scholar, and activist, she is an internationally recognized expert on the history of American medicine, racial and ethnic disparities in health and health care, public health ethics, and bioethics.  She is the author of several widely acclaimed publications on the history of race and racism in American medicine and bioethics. Public service has been a hallmark of her career.  She chaired the committee that took the lead role in the successful campaign to obtain an apology in 1997 from President Clinton for the United States Public Health Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.   She is a member of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the Hastings Center. A native of West Philadelphia, Dr. Gamble received her B.A. from Hampshire College and her MD and PhD in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

About the Author

Greg serves as the Friends Relations Associate for AFSC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, Greg grew up attending North Branch Friends Meeting at the Curtis family farm in the Poconos. Over the last ten years, he has facilitated numerous workshops for activists and Friends on a variety of topics, including anti-oppression activism, empire, and the "Inquirer's Weekend" at Pendle Hill with Trayce Peterson. Greg currently lives in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. 

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Lucy Duncan works with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Sophia is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She is a recent graduate of Guilford College where she majored in Sustainable Food Systems and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies.