February 26, 2013: Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward was the first African-American woman to become a doctor in New York State, and the third in the United States.
McKinney-Steward was born in 1846 to Sylvanus and Anne Smith on what was then the Weeksville farm, an area at the corners of Fulton Street and Buffalo Avenue.
Weeksville was an early settlement of freed slaves in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was founded in 1838, 11 years after the abolition of slavery in New York State, and named after James Weeks, an African-American settler from Virginia who purchased the land from the Lefferts family estate.
Born Susan Maria Smith, McKinney-Steward’s father was black, and her mother was of mixed heritage, the daughter of a French officer and a Shinnecock woman. McKinney-Steward graduated from the New York Medical College for Women as valedictorian in 1870.
McKinney-Steward would go on to have a distinguished career. She treated both blacks and whites at her practice in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and she helped found the Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary in Clinton Hill in 1881.
She was first married to Protestant Episcopal minister Reverend William G. McKinney. After being widowed in 1895, she married Reverend Theophilus Gould Steward, a U.S. Army Chaplain, and lived with him at remote bases on the western frontier.
Among her accomplishments were her involvement in the womens' suffrage movement and the African- American Brooklyn Literary Union. She was a musician with the Bridge Street AWME Church, as well as an associate of W.E.B. DuBois.
Her career included post-graduate studies at the Long Island Medical College Hospital, service on the staff of her alma mater, and later she was a founder of The Women’s Hospital and Dispensary (a homeopathic hospital, subsequently renamed The Memorial Hospital for Women and Children).
Dr. McKinney-Steward was one of the early Black members of the Kings County and New York State Homeopathic Medical Societies and functioned as an official physician of record for The Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People, one of the early institutions in the community of Weeksville.
She was president of the Brooklyn Women’s Christian Temperance Union (No. 6). She was an accomplished public speaker, and in 1911, addressed the first Universal Race Congress at the University of London. Her presentation was entitled “Colored Women in America.” In 1914, she gave a speech, “Women in Medicine,” at the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs Convention.
The last years of her life were spent in Xenia, Ohio, where she served as a resident physician and faculty member at Wilberforce University. Du Bois eulogized her upon her death in 1919.
Her life and career are inspirational to the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant History. Dr. Susan S. McKinney-Steward is remembered by the naming of a chapter of the National Medical Association in her honor by African-American women physicians. Also, MS 265 in Brooklyn has been named Susan Smith McKinney Junior High School as a remembrance.
Dr. Susan S. McKinney-Steward, we acknowledge your enormous contributions to the field of medicine; we are humbled by your stewardship and leadership for opening so many doors; and we honor your memory.
*Sources, green-wood.com, The Brooklyn Paper, and The Brooklyn Eagle