Facebook Pixel Tracking Pixel
Connect with us

Black History

Dr. Dorothy Ferebee: She Was Norfolk-Born, Became National Leader

Dr. Dorothy Ferebee: She Was Norfolk-Born, Became National Leader

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

In 2016 weeks before the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture officially opened its doors in Washington, D.C., Janice Ferebee was in the final stages of her class to become a docent at the site.

Docents are tour guides assigned to educate the throngs of people seeking to experience 400-plus years of African-Americans’ history in this nation.

At one point the instructor was talking about the legacy of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).

She recalled that he mentioned the work of its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, who also gave birth to Bethune Cookman College.

Then he mentioned the work of Dorothy Height, who rejuvenated the organization and was a national leader until her death.

“What the instructor failed to mention was Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee,” said Janice Ferebee. “He also forgot to mention Vivian Carter Mason. Dr. Ferebee was the second national President of the NCNW (1949 to 1953).”

Janice Ferebee said she stood up and acknowledged the omission of the two famous women. Now it has been corrected.


Janice Ferebee is the grand niece of Dr. Ferebee.

Over the past two decades, she has been working hard to ensure that the museum and the world outside its doors recognize Dr. Ferebee’s work and legacy.

Janice Ferebee is a trained social worker, but she has been working for various publications, non-profits, and now the D.C. government as an elected Advisor to the Council on Issues Related to Youth and Senior Citizens in the city’s Ward 2.

She calls herself the Chief Woman Warrior of Ferebee Enterprises International, LLC, which is centered around programs designed to uplift and empower girls.

Shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, she landed a job with “17 Magazine,” a bimonthly publication for 13–19-year-old females.

The publication devised an edition featuring teen models and her encounter with the young candidates seeking to be models in the issue inspired her work.

“I met girls who had issues with self-esteem,” she said. “They were so concerned about her body, skin color, and hair texture, an enviable of the European idea of beauty.   But I told them appearance was not important. That (being) pretty is what you make it.”

Ferebee said her inspiration for this effort is derived from the work and legacy of her famous great aunt, who she said, was an extraordinary woman and professional.

She was a well-educated and privileged woman who, despite her intellect and advantages, had to overcome racism, sexism, and other issues.

In 1898, in Norfolk, Dorothy Ferebee was born into a family of lawyers and other professionals in the South Norfolk section who had begun their origins under slavery.


One of them was R. G. L. Paige of Norfolk, and the state’s first Black lawyer, a reconstruction era member of the House of Delegates. Born a slave, Paige escaped to Philadelphia in about 1857 and eventually settled in Boston before returning to Norfolk.

Dorothy Ferebee and her brother Ruffin were shipped off to Boston when their mother, Florence Boulding, became ill.

The two grew up in the middle-class neighborhood of Beacon Hill.

After graduating from English High School in 1915 with high honors, she attended and graduated from Simmons College in Boston where she became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.

She went on to graduate at the top of her class in 1924 from Tufts University School of Medicine and in 1927, she was one of nine women to pass the District of Columbia medical exam. 

Ferebee could not secure an internship at any white hospital; however, she did at Howard University’s Medical School’s training hospital at the time, Freedom’s Hospital. This was where most of the nation’s Black physicians were trained.

Ferebee, majoring in Obstetrics, promoted contraception and sex education to poor Black women, both highly controversial topics during the time.

Upon completing her internship in 1925, she began her medical clinic in the Southeast section of Washington, the poorest section of town.

She persuaded the trustees of the Friendship House, a charitable segregated medical center, to open a clinic for African-Americans. This clinic was later named Southeast Neighborhood House. 

She set up the Southeast Neighborhood Society, which contained a playground and daycare for the children of working mothers.


She also joined the faculty of Howard University Medical School where she was appointed medical physician to women. She even found time to marry Howard University dental professor Claude Thurston Ferebee and the couple had twins.

From 1935 to 1942, Dr. Ferebee directed the Mississippi Health Project in the Mississippi Delta, supported by the AKA sorority. It provided healthcare to poor Black sharecropper families in Holmes and Mound Bayou Counties.

According to Janice Ferebee, her great aunt, and 17 other female medical professionals made the health care project work for the community, despite racist hostility.

“It was a challenge,” she said. “They had to drive to Mississippi because they could not buy enough train tickets for the 17 Black women. The trains only accommodated 20 seats in the Negro sections.”

Ferebee said when the women arrived, they were not welcomed by the wealthy white farmers who did not want their Black sharecroppers, most of whom had never seen a doctor, to be served.

Ferebee and her colleagues set up a makeshift clinic, using sheets to provide privacy for their patients.

Janice Ferebee said the Project provided over 15,000 vaccinations for all kinds of diseases.

“Many of the children had never brushed their teeth,” said Janice Ferebee. “The Black sharecroppers picked healthy vegetables but they could not afford or were not allowed to eat them.”

Ahead of its time, Ferebee said that the Surgeon General at the time applauded the AKAs’ effort. It was the largest public health program in the nation at the time.

Along with being a leader of the AKAs, and groups like the Girls Scouts, Dr. Ferebee was involved in the civil rights movement as a member of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).


In the fall of 1949, they elected her president of the organization after Dr. Bethune retired.

The organization promoted healthcare, and education, and continued its work to end discrimination against African-Americans and women in the military, housing, employment, and voting.

As president of NCNW, she issued her “Nine Point Program” which outlined a plan to achieve fundamental civil rights through educational and legislative initiatives. At the same time, she continued her career as an obstetrician.

She served on the boards of the White House’s Children and Youth Council, as well as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); was a delegate to the World Health Organization and other national and international organizations addressing world health disparities and poverty. She died in 1980.

“She was an extraordinary woman,” said Janice Ferebee. “My goal is to continually remind people of that by empowering women, girls, and others just as she did.”

Hide picture