Black History Month: Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler


Hi friends,

Thank you to everyone who joined us for Sunday’s conversation with Keiko Cooley. Wasn’t she so brilliant? If you missed it, you can check out our Speaker Synthesis or subscribe to our Patreon to watch the whole thing,

In honor of our conversation with Keiko, we’ve redirected our course this week to share with you one final Black historical figure that admittedly, we had never heard about before Sunday, either! 


Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, withstanding and actively combating prejudice long before many others would have the same opportunity. There is little available to shed light on the story of Dr. Crumpler’s life, however, according to NIH’s Changing the Face of Medicine Archives, she has secured her place in the historical record with her book of medical advice for women and children, published in 1883.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware, to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber. Raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania, a caretaker for sick neighbors, Crumpler was compelled to pursue a similar caretaking role from an early age. By 1852 she had moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for the next eight years (because the first formal school for nursing would not open until 1873, she was able to perform such work without any formal education on the matter). In 1860, she was admitted to and began attending the New England Female Medical College as the first Black woman to enroll. When she graduated in 1864, Crumpler was the first Black woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, and the only Black woman ever to graduate from the New England Female Medical College, as it closed in 1873.

In her Book of Medical Discourses, published in 1883, she gives a brief summary of her career path: “It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others. Later in life I devoted my time, when best I could, to nursing as a business, serving under different doctors for a period of eight years (from 1852 to 1860); most of the time at my adopted home in Charlestown, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From these doctors I received letters commending me to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of doctress of medicine.”

Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston for a short while before moving to Richmond, Virginia, after the Civil War ended in 1865. Richmond, she felt, would be “a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled . . . to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.” She joined other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and missionary and community groups, even though black physicians experienced intense racism working in the postwar South.

“At the close of my services in that city,” she explained, “I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration.” She lived on Joy Street on Beacon Hill in Richmond, then a mostly Black neighborhood. By 1880 she had moved back to Massachusetts and was no longer in active practice, giving her time to write and publish her book. That 1883 book is based on journal notes she kept during her years of medical practice.

To our knowledge, no photos or other images survive of Dr. Crumpler. The little we know about her comes from the book’s introduction, “a remarkable mark of her achievements as a physician and medical writer in a time when very few African Americans were able to gain admittance to medical college, let alone publish.” Her book is one of the very first medical publications by a Black American.

Image on left is a photo of the title page of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s book, A Book on Medical Discourses, one of the first medical publications by a Black woman published in the United States. On the right is Dr. Crumpler, wearing her medical bonnet, that is printed within the book. Images courtesy of NIH. 


Our friends in Texas are struggling after last week’s snowstorms and complete failure of leadership. We could say a lot about how the drive for privatized utilities absolutely damned Texans’ ability to stay safe and warm last week. We could say a LOT about how, per usual, corporate greed leads to cutting corners at the expense of Black and Latino residents. We’ll save it and instead boost some mutual aid and direct aid options in Texas for easy giving:

Per the recommendation of our friend, Thomas Marshall, Houston resident and future board member, we’re asking that our readers donate to the Houston Mutual Aid Fund (via GoFundMe), Rice Mutual Aid Fund (via Venmo – @ricemutualaid) or support the needs of the Houston Housless Organizing Collective by helping them buy things off their Amazon wishlist. 


Although the election’s over and those mail in ballots ultimately arrived, the woes of the USPS didn’t end in 2020. In 2021, we’re looking at an unnecessary price increase for mail users this year under Trump appointee Postmaster DeJoy (remember him? The one who owns stock in both UPS and FedEx?). Yes, that same guy is still the postmaster. Yes, we have feelings about this. That’s not the point today though. 

There’s one major change Postmaster DeJoy is looking to make that could spell trouble for users of the mail, particularly for those with low incomes: Per federal law, postal rates are set under a variety of complicated rules, overseen by the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC). For years, the cost of a first-class stamp has been governed by an inflation-linked price cap: the USPS could seek permission to raise rates each year, but not beyond the rate of consumer inflation. After years of deliberation, the PRC issued a massive ruling in late November, establishing a new system that most experts warn will result in faster-growing postage rates (remember that problem with the post office? The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, requiring the then-thriving post office to pay their employees’ benefits for the next 75 years, including for postal workers who hadn’t even been born yet, all at once and driving them from having surplus to massive debt?). 

The new rule is based around “mail density,” which works like this: the USPS is required to deliver to more addresses (or “delivery points,” in postal regulatory lingo) each year. As the overall volume of mail declines and the number of delivery points increases, the USPS’s cost to deliver each piece of mail goes up. Given this dynamic, the PRC wants to make it so that prices increase to compensate for this “decline in mail density.”

Who does this actually affect though? People who extra-rely on mail and mail alone. Most notably, people who are incarcerated. Think about a prison with thousands of people forced to reside within those walls and hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail entering and exiting the facility each week. But here’s the catch – the price hike would drive most of us away from paper mail and toward electronic alternatives. Incarcerated people are not contributing to the USPS’s declining density problem (all letters are going directly to one facility where it is sorted internally) and they have no ability to mitigate increased postage rates by seeking electronic alternatives. They will be hardest hit by a price increase with no ability to communicate with the outside world otherwise and no sustained income while incarcerated.

This price increase if accounting for a normal year of mail would be around 1.3%. However, adjusting for pandemic-depressed mail volume is projected to be at least 4.5% as explained by the Save the Post Office blog, According to Prison Policy Institute, “when other potential rate-drivers are taken into account, USPS could seek a mid-year price hike of around 5.5%. Based on the current first-class rate of 55c for a one-ounce letter, a 5.5% increase would be around 3c, but under the USPS’s ill-advised rounding policy, the increase would be rounded up to the nearest five cents, potentially resulting in a new price of 60c to mail a letter. That’s about equal to the average hourly wage earned by incarcerated people in non-prison-industry certified jobs.”

Our task this week:

To prevent this, we’re asking our readers to take two related routes: (1) Contact your representatives and tell them you want them to support the removal of postmaster DeJoy and (2) tell them to immediately to improve the USPS finances without extracting more money from incarcerated people and their families.

Here is your call script:

“Hi, my name is _____ and I am a resident of ____, and one of your constituents. I am calling to urge you to support the removal of Postmaster DeJoy and support any efforts to improve the postal services’ finances that don’t involve an increased cost to consumers based on mail density. Any price increase will disproportionately affect people who rely on mail as their primary form of communication with the greater world, especially incarcerated people. Please support any efforts to remove Postmaster DeJoy and consider the impact of any price increase on our most vulnerable community members.”

Alright team, we’ll see you Tuesday as we begin a month of conversations about education and racism. We are so excited to switch gears a little and continue to learn together this spring!

In solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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