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Black History Month: Groundbreaking Librarians and Doctors in Detroit

By Meghan McGowan and Ophelia Morey

In final honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting just a few of the Detroiters who have made our city the very special place it is. We’d like to introduce you to three trailblazing African American librarians who had inspirational careers in Detroit: Marjorie Adele Blackistone Bradfield, Clara Stanton Jones, and Louise Lovett Wright and three leading doctors: Drs. Marjorie Peebles-Meyers, Joseph Ferguson, and Ossian Sweet.


Marjorie Adele Blackistone Bradfield

Ms. Blackistone Bradfield was described by her son as having an “iron will.” This was demonstrated throughout her career as a librarian. In 1936, she earned her library degree and persevered as the first African American librarian hired by the Detroit Public Library (DPL) in 1938. In this role, she successfully improved the library’s Black History collection. She was married to Dr. Horace F. Bradfield, and the mother of two children when she left the library profession in 1950. After her return in 1964, she continued to advocate for libraries, and was successful in increasing funds for the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of Black performing arts materials. Ms. Blackistone Bradfield ended her library career as head librarian for the Detroit Public Schools, but before her retirement, she recommended that the DPL hire Clara Stanton Jones as their first woman and African American library director. For more information about her life, The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan houses her autobiography.


Clara Stanton Jones

Clara Stanton Jones.jpg

Image Credit: View of Clara Stanton Jones, director of the Detroit Public Library from 1970-1978, standing outside of her office, bh009909, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

As chronicled by the University of Michigan School of Information, Ms. Stanton Jones had a stellar career as a librarian that was grounded in her commitment to serving the community in Detroit. Not only was she appointed first woman and African American library director for a major library system in 1970, but she was also elected as the first African American president of the American Library Association (ALA) from July 1976 to 1977. From 1978 to 1982, she served as Commissioner to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science.

The path to her success was not easy, but she was steadfast as demonstrated when she passed the ALA Resolution on Racism and Sexism Awareness under her presidency. In response to a challenge to the resolution in 1977, she wrote: “The spirit of the ‘Resolution on Racism and Sexism Awareness’ is not burdened with repression; it is liberating. If the resolution is imperfect, try to make it perfect, but not by destroying it first!” The challenge was rescinded and the resolution triumphed!

On a lighter note, Ms. Stanton Jones was interviewed by Detroit TV show host, Carol Duvall because she was one of the “Space Age Librarians who staffed the Library of the Future exhibit at the Seattle World's Fair.” Here is a photo of their 1962 interview.


Louise Lovett Wright

 Louise Lovett Wright.jpg

Image credit: Image of painting by Carl Owens of Ms. Louise Lovett Wright. Courtesy of The Louise Lovett Wright Research Library at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

The Charles Wright Museum of African American History is the home of the Louise Lovett Wright Research Library. Dr. Charles Wright was an obstetrician and gynecologist, founder of the Wright Museum, and husband of Louise Lovett Wright. Ms. Lovett Wright pursued an education as a librarian when she could not travel overseas as planned after graduating from college. After graduating from library school, she first worked as a librarian at the Chicago Public Library and at a Chicago high school. In 1950, she moved to Detroit with her husband, but after a short time they moved to New York City (NYC) so that he could pursue his residency at a Harlem hospital. While in NYC, she worked in the New York Public Library system. After their first daughter was born in 1952, she left the library profession. The family moved back to Detroit in 1953 where their second daughter was born in 1956.

Although she no longer worked as a librarian, Ms. Lovett Wright remained passionate about books, reading, and volunteer service in Detroit. She set up patient reading programs at hospitals, created a library on a ship where her husband volunteered, and served as a board member for an association for people who were visually impaired. For her volunteer service, she received several awards: the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Urban League, the Mayor Coleman A. Young Award of Merit, and the Michigan State Legislature passed a resolution in her honor.

When her husband started the museum, she was instrumental in developing the book collection where she set up the library by cataloging the donated books, and creating a card catalog. Though she did not live to see the opening of the museum in 1987, the library was dedicated in her honor on September 12th, 1987. As a testament to the Wright family’s vision and diligence, the museum is a world renowned institution where researchers can spend weeks with the collection and archives. You can browse the library’s collection online, but it is well worth an in-person visit.


Dr. Marjorie Peebles-Meyers

Dr. Peebles-Meyers graduated from Wayne University College of Medicine in 1943, becoming the school's first Black woman to graduate. Continuing her trailblazing path, she then became, “the first African American female resident and chief resident at Detroit Receiving Hospital.” Four years later, she opened the first interracial medical practice in Detroit alongside Dr. Eugene Shafarman. Her extraordinary career will be celebrated for generations to come. For more information about Dr. Peebles-Meyers, check out this Notable Alum post from Wayne State University.


Dr. Joseph Ferguson

As noted by Wayne State’s School of Medicine, Dr. Ferguson graduated from the Detroit Medical College in 1869, becoming the first African American in Michigan to earn a medical degree. Notably, Dr. Ferguson was already practicing medicine prior to his degree because at the time, he did not need to complete his medical education to practice legitimately. Ultimately, his choice to pursue a medical degree despite racism in America’s medical education system was a choice of fortitude and passion for learning.

His resilience did not end with his medical practice. He was a known conductor involved in the Underground Railroad in Detroit and met with activists including Frederick Douglass and John Brown. More, he was instrumental in the early desegregation efforts in Detroit Public Schools. For more information about Dr. Ferguson, check out this post from Wayne State’s School of Medicine.


Dr. Ossian Sweet

 Ossian Sweet.jpg

Image Credit: Portrait of Dr. Ossian Sweet, bh007383, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Dr. Ossian Sweet moved to Detroit in 1921 where he settled in as a prominent doctor in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. Black Bottom was a historically African American neighborhood in Detroit and though it was overcrowded and underserved, residents transformed the neighborhood into a web of Black businesses and institutions. You can learn more about Black Bottom in this Detroit History podcast episode. By settling his practice in Black Bottom, Dr. Sweet filled a much needed gap in Detroit’s segregated healthcare system and was woven into the legacy of Black Bottom as a cultural stronghold for Black Detroiters.

Dr. Sweet made national news when he and his family purchased and moved into a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. They were met with racist mob violence and a lack of police support. The standoff ended in the death of one of the people in the mob and Dr. Sweet was consequently charged with murder. As described by the Detroit Historical Society, “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) assisted in the defense, bringing in Clarence Darrow as chief counsel. The first trial ended with a hung jury and the second trial ended in an acquittal. Afterwards, no further effort was made to prosecute Ossian Sweet or the other defendants.”

Though Dr. Sweet was acquitted and able to stay in his home for thirty more years, his story is representative of Detroit’s longer history of racist violence. Parallel to Dr. Sweet’s own story, Black Bottom was later destroyed by the city government’s intentional plan to redevelop the neighborhood and destroy a Black cultural center in the city.

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