CINCINNATI - In 1935, Lucy Orintha Oxley forever etched her place in Cincinnati history. That year, she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine .
When asked to reflect on Oxley’s contribution, Richard Cooper and Carl Westmoreland from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Department of Interpretation put together a collaborative response.
“In today’s world one would think that Lucy O. Oxley, the daughter of a Harvard-educated Episcopal priest and teacher, in a medium-sized, Midwest American city, a Woodward High School graduate at the age of 16 would be admitted to the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine without much thought,” Cooper said.
“Privileged, but black and female, it would take her father openly pressuring the University of Cincinnati and possibly influence by people from the larger white community for Ms. Oxley to become admitted. “
Early life & college years
Born in Harrisburg, Pa. in 1912, Oxley was three years old when her family moved to Cincinnati. After being admitted to the university at 16, Oxley endured prejudice from both students and professors who often referred to her using racial slurs, Cooper and Westmoreland said.
According to historical records provided by the University of Cincinnati, the institution was far from accepting of African-American students in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. In 1855, Charles McMicken earmarked funding in his will for “two colleges for the education of White boys and girls.”
In 1929, there was a push for segregation throughout the country; however, a few tenacious black students did filter into the university. Oxley, like many others, fought to be accepted with help from her influential father.
In 1935, Oxley graduated from the University of Cincinnati in a class of 870 students; she was one of only six African-Americans to graduate that year. Oxley was among the top 15 students from College of Medicine to graduate.
From segregation to success
UC professor of surgery Ken Davis treated Oxley in the late 1980s, during her years of declining health. While she was only his patient for a short time, he was inspired by her legacy.
“She was very involved in the surrounding community and very highly regarded by her patients,” he said. “She was a very personable, down to earth person.”
Davis said he met Oxley’s classmate and lifelong friend, UC College of Medicine faculty member Sander Goodman. Goodman belonged to a study group from her class which fiercely protected Oxley. Davis said members of the study group even arranged for Oxley to publicly dine with them on multiple occasions at a restaurant, an action that was highly unorthodox at the time due to segregation.
“So that group of classmates, who arguably were her study group, were very protective of her in terms of some of the hostility that she endured; because she encountered both, as being a woman and being an African-American,” Davis said.
After graduation, Oxley continued to face discrimination when trying to find a hospital where she could complete her internship. She finally landed at the only institution willing to accept her: Freedman’s Hospital at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Later, Oxley returned to Cincinnati to set up a family practice in the primarily African-American community of Walnut Hills.
“Her reputation as a caring, thoughtful, kind person was an asset she shared with her patients to the point that young people of African descent were often treated by their parents with Sunday 'drive-bys' of her Walnut Hills medical facility,” Westmoreland said.
Dr. Oxley's legacy
In 2008, Davis and his wife Johnie established the Lucy Oxley, MD African-American Medical Student Scholarship at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Davis explained he set up the endowment because he became frustrated as the university continued to lose two-thirds of the African-American medical school applicants due to lack of competitive financial aid programs. He hopes the fund will continue to grow, allowing for sponsorship of more students.
“We thought the obvious name for the scholarship should be the first African-American graduate from the UC College of Medicine and that was Dr. Oxley,” he said.
As the current recipient of the Lucy Oxley Scholarship, UC medical student Martha Dua-Awereh explained without the funding, she and her parents would not have been able to afford tuition costs. She said as one of the 25 minority medical students enrolled in her class, there’s an awareness and effort by the university to create diversity among students; a practice that was sorely absent during Oxley’s time.
Dua-Awereh said pioneers like Oxley have afforded her the ability to achieve her goal of becoming a specialist in the field of pediatrics after graduation. She said during the scholarship award ceremony, she was able to get a clearer picture of Oxley through the eyes of some of her former patients.
“They said that she was warm,
friendly and she was more like a family member rather than just a physician,” she said. “They were happy to know that there was a scholarship in honor of her because they thought she was such a wonderful person.”
A Queen City jewel
Oxley died of lung cancer in 1991 at the age of 79. At the time of her death, she was serving more than 200 patients in Walnut Hills. Even though Oxley passed away more than 20 years ago, her legacy continues to be an inspiration to others, explained Cooper and Westmoreland.
“Dr. Lucy O. Oxley crossed many barriers based on race and gender,” said Cooper and Westmore. “She would be given the honor of making a major address to the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, the second oldest black fraternal organization serving fraternal and social needs of African American males in 1948. Her quiet, determined professional style was one of grace and class. She was one of the jewels in the crown of the “Queen City.”