Dr. Dorothy Ferebee was a tireless advocate for racial equality and women's health care. In 1925 in a derelict section of Capitol Hill, she established Southeast Neighborhood House, to provide health care for impoverished African Americans. She also set up the Southeast Neighborhood Society, with playground and day care for children of working mothers. At Howard University Medical School, she was appointed director of Health Services. She was founding president of the Women's Institute, an organization that serves educational, community, government, and non-profit organizations, as well as individual patients.
Dorothy Celeste Boulding was born in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father's parents were former slaves. While she was young her family moved north to Boston, Massachusetts, where Dorothy and her brother Ruffin grew up in the middle-class neighborhood of Beacon Hill. Her family enriched her childhood, serving as excellent role models. With eight attorneys among them, discussions about law dominated the household. One of Dorothy Boulding's uncles, George Lewis Ruffin, was the first African-American graduate of Harvard Law School and later became Massachusetts's first black judge. "All I heard at the table was 'your honor, I object,' or 'answer the question yes or no.' Yet all my life I wanted to be a doctor."
Since she was a child, Dorothy Boulding wanted to help cure the injured. While her friends played with toys, she doctored ailing and injured animals, "I would nurse and help the birds that fell out of trees, the dog that lost a fight."
After graduating from English High School with highest honors, Dorothy Boulding attended Simmons College in Boston and decided to apply to medical school and she was accepted into Tufts University School of Medicine. Although she graduated among the top five in her class, she met a blockade of racism when she applied for internships at white hospitals. So Dr. Boulding moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship at Freedmen's Hospital, the precursor to Howard University and one of the few hospitals under African-American administration that provided health care to the black community.
After completing her internship in 1925, Dr. Boulding opened her own practice in a derelict area of Capitol Hill, without ambulance service. To augment health care in the neighborhood, she persuaded the trustees of the Friendship House, a charitable segregated medical center, to open an adjunct clinic for African-Americans. The new facility was named Southeast Neighborhood House. She also set up the Southeast Neighborhood Society, with playground and day care for children of working mothers. That same year she joined the faculty of Howard University Medical School, and became the founding president of the philanthropoic and educational Women's Institute.
In 1930, Dr. Boulding married Claude Thurston Ferebee, a dentist and instructor at Howard University College of Dentistry. A year after their marriage, the couple had twins, Claude Jr. and Dorothy. Tragically, their daughter contracted flu and died at age 18.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was devastating to the poorest members of society. In 1934 the philanthropic sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha (the first African-American sorority, founded 1908) sponsored the Mississippi Health Project to bring primary medical care to the rural black population across the state of Mississippi, who struggled to receive even the most basic health care. Dr. Ferebee served as medical director of the project which was active for two to six weeks every summer from 1935 to 1942. Dr. Ferebee, a long-term member of the sorority, was elected President of Alpha Kappa Alpha in 1939.
Through contacts with the United States Public Health Service, an endorsement by Senator Byron Patton (Pat) Harrison (D-Miss), and the State Department of Health at Jackson, Mississippi, the project sent mobile medical units into regions of poverty in the rural South.
Alpha Kappa Alpha members used the Mississippi Health Project to bring federal attention to the needs of African Americans in the rural South. In the face of hostile, intimidating, and suspicious white plantation owners, project participants launched smallpox and diphtheria immunization programs in ramshackle communities of black sharecroppers. They also tackled widespread malnutrition and venereal disease.
In 1949 Dr. Ferebee was appointed director of Howard University Medical School's health services, a post she held until 1968. An active member of the National Council of Negro Women, she succeeded her friend Mary McLeod Bethune as its second president from 1949 to 1953, and expanded the organization's efforts to eliminate discrimination against minorities in housing, health care, education, and the armed forces.
In the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the Council for Food for Peace, she toured Africa for five months, lecturing on preventive medicine. She died on September 14, 1980, in Washington D.C.