Welcome to Black History Month at the Brooklyn Collection! Last year our blog highlighted the good work of Hattie "The Tree Lady" Carthan. This year we want to share the story of another black woman pioneer – Susan Smith McKinney Steward who was Brooklyn's first black woman physician (who also happened to be the third black physician in the whole country.) Dr. Kinney Steward had a very successful practice with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan but for her, medicine was more than just treatment. It was a means by which she could further elevate and impact the community she loved and fight for racial inclusion and women’s rights. During her life she founded clinics, clubs and suffragette groups. She fought daily against the convergence of racism, sexism and professionalization in order to have a great impact on Brooklyn.
Dr. McKinney Steward was the seventh of ten children born in 1847 to Sylvanus and Anne Smith, early settlers of Weeksville. In fact, much of Dr. McKinney Steward’s life would be tied to Weeksville. Her parents were prosperous pork farmers, their farm located on what is now Fulton Street and Buffalo Avenue. All of the Smith children were well educated and socially conscious. Her sisters were public school principals, teachers and piano players.
Dr. McKinney Steward received her medical degree in 1870, graduating valedictorian in her class from New York Medical College for Women. Just to keep that in a historical context she started attending medical school just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Things were not easy for Dr. McKinney Steward or her fellow classmates. In addition to her classes she needed to do clinical practice at nearby hospitals. On one occasion she and her fellow students went to Bellevue Hospital and their inclusion was not welcomed by the men there. As reported by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the male students greeted them with “hisses, indecent language, paper balls and other missiles.”
But Dr. McKinney Steward persevered, graduated and practiced medicine in Brooklyn and Manhattan, specializing in prenatal care and childhood diseases. She founded the Women’s Hospital and Dispensary in Brooklyn which later became the Memorial Hospital for Women and Children. She was a member of the Kings County Medical Society and New York State Homeopathic Medical Societies.
She also served as an official physician at the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People one of the first medical institutions in Weeksville. (It is now called the Brooklyn Home for the Aged). She was also one of the founders of the Homeopathic Hospital at Myrtle and Grand Avenues, staffed entirely by women. It was later renamed the Memorial Hospital for Women and Children.
Dr. McKinney Steward was most known for her ability to treat malnutrition in children. Her skill along with her gentle nature made her a very popular and prosperous family physician. She treated both white and black families at her office at 205 DeKalb Avenue.
She married Reverend William G. McKinney and they had two children, settling at 178 Ryerson Street. But as stated earlier, while medicine was her livelihood, its larger purpose was helping her community. She was active in both the black community and the women’s movement. She was the co-founder of the Women’s Loyal Union and a member of the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn.
She was also a member of the African-American Brooklyn Literary Union and gave lectures. In 1911 she addressed the first Universal Race Congress at the University of London, England with a speech entitled “Colored Women in America.” She also served as the organist for the Bridge Street A. M. E. Church for 28 years.
Widowed, she married Rev. Theophilus Gould Steward, a US Army Chaplain. As his wife she lived on several remote bases on the western frontier. Her final days were spent as a resident physician at Wilberforce University in Ohio. When she died in March 1918 she was eulogized by Dr. W.E.B Dubois, a close friend of hers, and was buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was a trailblazer in the medical community as well as champion of African-American and Women’s rights. Her legacy is felt throughout Brooklyn – Middle School #265 is named Susan Smith McKinney Junior High in her honor and her life and career are inspirational to the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History. Prospect Place, from New York Avenue to Nostrand Avenue was renamed in her honor and black women physicians named their society after her.
Dr. McKinney Steward was a pioneer, a suffragette, and a champion for the black community. Brooklyn is honored to call her one of their own.