A true American pioneer, Dr. Susan McKinney Steward was the first black woman to earn a medical degree in the state of New York.
Born in Crown Heights — then known as Crown Hill — in 1847, McKinney Steward was the seventh of ten children born to Sylvanus and Anne Smith, early settlers of Weeksville and prosperous pork farmers.
Motivated and driven, McKinney Steward worked on the family farm, located on what is now Fulton Street and Buffalo Avenue, and spent her free time under the tutelage of noted organist John Zundel.
As she grew older, she worked as a teacher in Washington D.C. and New York City, using her wages to pay for medical school. In a time when racial and gender obstacles continued to hold many back, McKinney Steward pushed on. In 1870, she graduated from the New York Medical School for Women and Children as class valedictorian, with a specialization in homeopathy, a natural treatment of diseases.
After graduation, McKinney Steward opened her own medical practice at her Brooklyn home. After a slow start, word of her skills began to spread around Brooklyn and despite skepticism of the ability of a black doctor, she attracted a broad, diverse group of patients who affectionately referred to her as “Dr. Susan.”
McKinney Steward would also found 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. Additionally, she used her time to attend to seniors at the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People.
For McKinney Steward, 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. She would continue to fight against the convergence of racism, sexism and professionalization until her death in 1918.
Dr. Susan McKinney Steward was a pioneer, a suffragette, and a champion for the black community. 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. Susan McKinney Steward, we acknowledge your groundbreaking accomplishments, celebrate your contributions and honor your memory.
*Sources, Brooklyn Public Library, patch.com