There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The iconic image of the American pioneer usually shows white settlers busting the sod of the Great Plains. But some pioneers—those African-Americans who were first to push into the post-bellum realms of higher education and the professions—broke their ground in the cities of the East, often at great personal cost. That is the theme explored by Chevy Chase-based authors Ellen R. Butts and Joyce R. Schwartz in May Chinn: The Best Medicine, a book in W.H. Freeman’s “Science Superstars” series for readers age 7 to 12. Born in 1896 in Massachusetts, May Chinn could hardly have had more going against her; she was an alcoholic’s offspring, a child of the barely working class, black, and female. She easily could have disappeared without a ripple into the racist, sexist claustrophobia of modern America. Instead, Chinn became the first African-American woman to graduate from Bellevue Medical School. She became a physician—in her day a rare career for any woman, never mind a woman of color. She became a pillar of Harlem public-health activism, especially in her work as a cancer diagnostician and an advocate for black medical students. In energetic, elegant prose winningly illustrated with subtle monochromatic drawings by Janet Hamlin, Butts and Schwartz portray Chinn as a dedicated, sometimes heroic figure. This biography will have universal appeal for young readers of all backgrounds, but Chinn’s model of racial pride and achievement should have special resonance for young African-Americans.