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Pioneering black doctor championed equal rights

Anthony Neal | 8/8/2012, 10:16 a.m.

Dr. James Thomas Still, an eminent African American physician, practiced medicine in Boston during the late 19th century. He was the first child of Henrietta Still  and Dr. James H. Still of New Jersey. Known as the “Black Doctor” and the “Doctor of the Pines,” his father, Still Sr. had no formal medical training; nonetheless, he gained a favorable reputation in the community as a medical doctor and was permitted to practice without legal interference.

James T. Still was born on July 12, 1840 in Medford, N.J. He obtained his education in the common schools of that state. After completing his studies, he taught at a school in Mt. Holly, N.J. in 1862 and 1863. Then he became a sutler’s clerk at Camp William Penn, a training camp for black troops enlisted in the Union Army, located in Cheltenham, Penn.

Deeply influenced by his father and intent on becoming a physician, Still studied chemistry, saved his money, and entered Harvard Medical School in 1867. He graduated with honors in 1871, having presented his thesis on hay asthma and hay fever. After graduation, he served as a surgeon in the second battalion of the Massachusetts Voluntary Militia under Major Lewis Gaul, until 1874.

That year, Still set up his medical practice at 166 Cambridge St., married Miss Elizabeth Handy of Philadelphia and became the first African American elected to the Boston School Board.

During his three years on the school board, Still persuaded Boston’s public school system to appoint Elizabeth Smith as its first African American teacher. She was the daughter of former Massachusetts Representative John J. Smith, a well-known abolitionist who was closely associated with Lewis Hayden and William Cooper Nell.

From 1877 to 1890, Still served on the Board of Directors of the Home for Aged Colored Women. The home was situated at 27 Myrtle St. in the West End. Governor John A. Andrew founded the residence in 1860 to provide social services and a place for indigent elderly African American women to stay. Many were former slaves who had later worked in Boston as servants.  

Like other prominent African American leaders, Still would occasionally present lectures in local black churches. In January 1876, he gave a speech at the North Russell Street Church entitled, “The Mysteries of Health and Wealth: How to Get and How to Keep Them.” He possessed one of the largest and most comprehensive libraries of books, papers and pamphlets authored by black men.

Still contributed many articles to medical journals and other publications and he authored several books.

One of his works, “Don’t Tell White Folks: or Light Out of Darkness,” a 31-page primer, was intended to shine light on the race problem. It was published in 1889. In that book, he made clear his belief that black people should be educated “in the best colleges of our country,” as that would “spurn true education and elevation.” Still was not a fan of segregated institutions because he thought they were un-American and not Christian. He said that the “patronizing of separate institutions, scholastic, religious and political, the hotbeds of caste, is a blot upon our republican principles, a stain upon our free institutions, and blasphemy against Him, who should guide all professors and believers in a true Christianity.” Yet, he saw the need for “race-respecting” leagues to protect black children from “the blizzards of race-destruction.”