Boston-New Brunswick-Richmond

Rebecca Crumpler wrote in the introduction to her 1883 book Medical Discourses, that after she received the degree of Doctress of Medicine (1864) she practiced in Boston, ‘but desiring a larger scope of general information, I traveled toward the British Dominions.’

In 1865, New Brunswick was a colonial territory of the British Empire but in 1867 it joined 3 other provinces to form the Confederation of Canada. It is uncertain why Rebecca and Arthur chose to go to New Brunswick other than they knew that former slaves found safety in British North America, and transport could be arranged.

In 1851, Cornelius Sparrow and his wife who had escaped from Virginia were aided by the Boston Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. They settled in St John’s, New Brunswick where they were successful in business.

In the previous century a few thousand black  slaves and servants accompanied the British Loyalists, who fled after the American Revolutionary War, along with free Blacks who had pledge allegiance to England.

Arthur Crumpler and Rebecca Lee married while on their trip to New Brunswick.


wedding report
This announcement appeared (in a different format) in 1865  in the Religious Intelligencer.
relgious intelligencer
“Containing the principal transactions of the various Bible and missionary societies, with particular accounts of revivals of religion.”

‘On my return (to Boston), after the close of the Confederate War, my mind centered upon Richmond, the capital city of Virginia, as the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunity to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.’

Library of Congress

Professor Jim Downs has written in  Sick From Freedom African American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012)  about the unintended consequences of emancipation.” They (freed slaves and their families) ended up entering into a world that was plagued by disease and suffering. Let us understand what was really at stake — yes, you’re free, you’re liberated, you can dance in the street. But where did you sleep that night, where did you eat? What about when you entered into the Union camp and there was an outbreak of measles?’

Library of Congress

At least a quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, including at least 60,000 who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work.

At a Virginia Historical Society lecture in 2016, National Park Service historian Michael Gorman said that by June of 1865, there were 30,000 former slaves in Richmond with no place to live and no way to sustain themselves. ‘They were trying to get a job, trying to find a new way of life,” Gorman said. “There was this fundamental narrative of ‘Okay slavery is over. Now go get a job.’ How?”

Chimborazo Hospital outside of Richmond was the largest hospital on either side of the conflict. According to the National Park Service, Chimborazo was more of a convalescent home for the sick and wounded confederate soldiers because Richmond wasn’t on the front line until April 2, 1865 when the confederate army left and burned the city. In July 1865, there were 50,000 former slaves in Richmond with no feasible living situation.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau, was an agency of the United States Department of War to “direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel, as he may deem needful for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children.”[2]

orlando brown

Dr. Orlando Brown, a former surgeon, and the Assistant Commissioner for Virginia’s Freedman Bureau allowed Dr. Crumpler ‘access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored’.  Dr. Crumpler worked in Richmond in  1866 -1867, and in her book she refers to a General Brown.

Dr. Brown had an interesting connection to the Boston area and  to the Black community, and this may be why he allowed Dr. Crumpler freedom to work as the only known black female physician in the Bureau.

He graduated from Yale Medical School, worked in Boston,  and joined the army as the assistant surgeon to the 18th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry which trained at Camp Meigs in Reidville.  In 1865 he was promoted to colonel of the 24th  United States Colored Infantry Regiment and remained with them in Richmond  until they mustered out in October 1865.

Dr. Crumpler recognized that the main threat to people’s lives was the lack of shelter, clothing and nutrition and that without the basics, they were at higher risk for infection, disease and death.

In, Charlestown, Boston, New Brunswick, and Richmond, Dr. Crumpler observed cause and effect. Her desire for writing her book was to ‘impress upon someone’s mind the possibility of prevention’.

Two ways to support the Crumpler project

  1. Make out a check to Friends of the Hyde Park Branch Library indicating that it is for the Crumpler Fund. Address: Hyde Park Library, 35 Harvard Avenue, Hyde Park, MA, 02136
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The Friends of the Hyde Park Library is a federally recognized 501(c)3 organization.

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