Black History Month 2021

Dr. Susan McKinney Steward: GSWNY Celebrates Black History Month

On behalf of the GSWNY Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee, to celebrate Black History Month, each week we’re highlighting a groundbreaking Black woman for her accomplishments related to the four pillars of Girl Scouts. This week, we’re featuring Dr. Susan McKinney Steward for STEM.


Dr. Susan McKinney Steward: 1847-1918 

We selected Susan McKinney Steward, M.D., for STEM because she is hailed as the third Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States and the first African American female physician in New York state. While those are great accomplishments for any person, they are even more powerful when you consider what she had to overcome due to racism and sexism at the time. Steward’s story is impossible to summarize in a few short paragraphs. Although we attempted to select some highlights, reading a more extensive biography is vital to get a true grasp of the monumental amount of achievements she had in her lifetime. The below biography is adapted from the History of American Women blog: https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2015/05/susan-mckinney-steward.html  

Susan McKinney Steward was born Susan Maria Smith in 1847, and she was the seventh of 10 children born to a multi-racial family. Her mother was of indigenous Shinnecock and French descent, and her father’s ancestors included an indigenous Montauk* and an African who escaped from a slave ship.  

In 1867, Steward enrolled at the New York Medical College for Women, founded by Dr. Clemence Sophia Lozier, one of the first female doctors in the United States. At this point in history, women (regardless of race) were not welcome to attend male medical schools. Besides welcoming Black students, the college was the first school where women of New York City could study medicine and the first hospital where women patients could receive medical care from doctors of their own gender.  

Steward graduated from the college as class valedictorian in 1870, also earning the honor of becoming the first African American female physician in New York and the third in America. She established a medical practice in her Brooklyn home and was able to open a second office in Manhattan. Her patients ran the spectrum in age, race, and income. Many affectionately called her Dr. Susan. 

In 1871, she married William G. McKinney, an Episcopal minister from South Carolina. The couple lived in her parents’ home, and in 1874 moved to the predominantly white area of Brooklyn where they had two children. She also continued her education and in 1888 was the only woman in a post-graduate class from the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. Sadly, in 1890 her husband suffered a cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain). She supported the family and six additional relatives who lived in the McKinney household. Her husband passed in 1892.  

In 1896, she married Theophilus Gould Steward, an ordained minister and chaplain of the 25th U.S. Colored Infantry. Dr. Steward moved several times as her husband was stationed at various army posts in the West, earning medical licenses and practicing medicine in Montana and Wyoming. In 1898, she was hired as a resident physician and a health and nutrition teacher Wilberforce University in Ohio. Although she followed her husband to other jobs in other states, she eventually returned to her position with Wilberforce University where her husband later became a history teacher.  

Steward participated in significant social reform for women’s equality, suffrage, and temperance. She shed light on issues surrounding prenatal care and childhood diseases. She actively worked to establish medical facilities for people of color and the elderly, even serving as a surgeon at one.  

In 1911, she attended a Universal Race Congress in London and presented a paper titled “Colored American Women,” which dealt with achievements of famous African American women including Phyllis Wheatley, Ida Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. She was lauded as an incredible public speaker. 

In 1914, Dr. Steward delivered a speech “Women in Medicine” before the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in Wilberforce, OH. In this speech she examined the history of women in medicine from Biblical times to 1914. Steward concluded that there was no need for separate medical schools for women, but that they should have equal opportunity for internships.  

Dr. Steward died suddenly on March 7, 1918, at Wilberforce University at age 71. Her body was returned to Brooklyn for burial. At her funeral the famous feminist, author, and social reformer Hallie Quinn Brown delivered her eulogy. Dr. William S. Scarborough, president of Wilberforce University, and author Dr. W.E.B. DuBois also spoke at the funeral. 

In 1974, the New York Board of Education named a Brooklyn school the Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Junior High School. During the 1980s, African-American women doctors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut named their medical society after Steward. 

*NOTE: As Steward is of Shinnecock and Montauk descent, we opted to use the term ‘indigenous.’ People of indigenous North American descent have varying preferences for how they are referred to such as ‘Native American,’ ‘American Indian,’ ‘Indian,’ and other terms, although many prefer to be called by their specific Nation or tribal names. This topic itself is its own journey of discovery and we encourage research and consideration into this subject. On the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s FAQ page (https://americanindian.si.edu/) they offer this:  

What is the correct terminology: American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native? 

All of these terms are acceptable. The consensus, however, is that whenever possible, Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name. In the United States, Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or indigenous American are preferred by many Native people.  

The following resources expand on Steward’s life and work. 


Black History Month Facts & Information

When looking for examples of contributions that African Americans have made to the United States, you do not have to look far. In fact, you probably used or came across one today! Here’s two examples: 

Three-Position Traffic Signal – Garret Morgan 

On November 20, 1923, Morgan received a patent for his electric automatic three-position traffic signal. Although it was not the first traffic signal, it was an important innovation because previous traffic sign 

s were manually operated and only had two positions: stop and go with no interval in between, causing many collisions. Morgan’s third position directed traffic to stop in all directions (precursor to the yellow light), giving drivers enough time to clear the intersection before crossing traffic entered it.  

Closed Circuit Television Security System – Marie Van Brittan Brown 

To feel safer while at home alone, Brown invented the first home security system in 1966. Her system included four peepholes, a sliding camera, television monitors, and microphones, the foundations for today’s modern home security systems. She also created a remote with a button to unlock the door and a button to call the police! In 1969, Brown and her husband received a patent for the invention and later she received an award from the National Science Committee.


Activities for All Ages

For Daisies & Brownies

For Juniors & Cadettes

For Seniors, Ambassadors, & Adults 


Girl Scout Values: Anti-Racism Patch

The Girl Scouts Anti-Racism Patch is a reflection that we are committed to our Girl Scout values that foster a community of justice, fairness, and inclusion. This Black History Month, consider using the list of ideas and resources provided to earn the patch with your girl or troop and when you are ready, sign our Girl Scouts Stands Against Racism Pledge.

Download patch information

Sign the pledge

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