The Defender: A Look Into the Life of Mary Britton

Give us to lead our cause
More noble souls like hers,
The memory of whose deed
Each feeling bosom stirs;
Whose fearless voice and strong
Rose to defend her race,
Roused Justice from her sleep,
Drove Prejudice from place.
“To Miss Mary Britton,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

In 1893 the great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar penned these lines about a petit Southern Black Adventist woman named Mary Britton. These words eloquently encapsulate Britton’s extraordinary life.

Her Beginnings

Mary Ellen Britton was born in 1855 within earshot of the auctioning and purchasing of thousands of human beings, in Lexington, the epicenter of the slave trade in Kentucky. The Brittons were a free black family in this Southern city a decade before emancipation, so their freedom was precarious at best. Like so many other blacks who were socially confined, the Brittons early instilled in their children a love for reading, and as a child Mary taught local slaves how to read and write, which miraculously was never illegal in Kentucky.

In 1871 Mary enrolled in a small Christian school called Berea College, but had to drop out before she completed her studies when both of her parents died in the same year. Family tragedy would stalk Mary her entire life, but it seemed to only make her stronger. After her parent’s untimely death, she relocated to Lexington where she taught black children, embarking on a life of helping and defending others.

An Adventist Activist

No sooner had Britton entered the classroom did she get involved in local causes. She founded and held leadership positions in societies that advocated for the rights of Blacks, women, children, and the poor. Her fiery speeches on behalf of the marginalized frequently appeared in newspapers, most famously those advocating for women’s voting rights. In 1891, Britton spoke against a proposed bill to racially segregate railroad cars before the Kentucky legislature. Two years later at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Britton exposed the racism of the celebrated event by attempting to enter the state of Kentucky’s exhibit. She was refused entrance because she was Black, but garnered newspaper coverage decrying the discrimination.

That same year Britton was one of eighteen charter members of the Black Adventist church in Lexington. Another was James Alexander Chiles, one of the first Black lawyers to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court; after he was forcibly removed from a rail car despite holding a first-class ticket, he litigated the desegregation of railroad coaches on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Britton and Chiles believed that the Adventist faith enhanced—not detracted from—their activism for the disadvantaged. Britton was active in the local church, operating as a clerk, raising funds for mission projects, and being a major donor herself. She seamlessly served her community, students, and church.

Ever Learning, Ever Leading

After 23 years in the classroom, Britton went north to study medicine at Battle Creek College and the American Medical Missionary College, where she imbibed John Harvey Kellogg’s holistic health philosophy and city mission programs. In 1902, she and Lottie Blake became the first Blacks to earn medical degrees from the two schools. Britton obtained a medical license a few months after she graduated and opened a practice in Lexington, becoming the first woman to practice medicine in Lexington, and the first Black woman physician in Kentucky.

For 22 years she provided medical care to rich and poor, Black and White, while modeling the Adventist message. Britton especially became involved in helping orphans, those who were going through what she went through as a teenager. A well-rounded individual, she held prominent positions in several professional organizations and was sought after as a lecturer in health, temperance, education, and civil rights. Furthermore, she continued protesting injustice from state laws legislating the racial segregation of schools, to local issues like the fair allocation of city taxes. She did this while prioritize her faith, and being an active member of the Louisville church. Britton retired at 68 and died two years later in Lexington in 1925.

The Untold Story

Mary Britton was a compelling figure. She was single her entire life, accomplishing considerable feats without a man by her side in an era and part of the country in which doing so was extremely difficult. To add to the difficulties, she was Black in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow South, which made her a target of prejudice and hate. And then, she was a Seventh-day Adventist, which in those days was largely unknown and unwelcome in the South, seen as a Northern Yankee sect that practiced strange Jewish rituals. When Britton’s life is considered in the light of these strikes against her, and that she defended others when she was most vulnerable, she becomes an even greater model for our emulation today.

More from Benjamin J. Baker

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