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Estelle Hall Young and daughter Dr. Louise Young

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 4/9/2022

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Estelle Hall Young and daughter Dr. Louise Young

 

Estelle Hall was born in 1884 in Georgia. Little of her childhood or parentage has survived the span of history, but her educational pursuits certainly have. She studied with activist and scholar W.E.B Dubois at Spelman College and attended Atlanta University, a private historically Black research institution. She taught in Atlanta for a few years, before moving to Baltimore in 1905 around age 21.

 

In Baltimore, she met and married Dr. Howard E. Young, a man 13 years her senior. Howard was the first Black person ever granted a pharmacist’s license in the state of Maryland. Together, the couple would have three children, sons Howard Jr. and Charles, and daughter Louise.

 

Estelle and Howard shared a passion for civil rights. In 1913 they bought a home in a white neighborhood, aiming to challenge Baltimore’s segregation laws. Homeowners who violated those laws were levied with a significant fine. The Youngs sought donations to help them pay the fine, so they could move in and desegregate the neighborhood themselves. However, they failed to raise sufficient funds and the couple was forced to rent the home to a white family. This initial failure did not extinguish their drive to fight injustice.  

 

Just two years later, in 1915, Estelle became the first president of the Baltimore's Colored Women's Suffrage Club and led weekly meetings for Baltimore's Colored Young Women's Christian Association. Movements for political progress, especially for Black women, could be painfully limited. Dr. Megan Bailey writes for the National Park Services’ Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education, “Black women found themselves pulled in two directions. Black men wanted their support in fighting racial discrimination and prejudice, while white women wanted them to help change the inferior status of women in American society. Both groups ignored the unique challenges that African American women faced.”

 

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, ostensibly granting voting rights to women in the United States. It was not that simple for Black women. Maryland, along with many other states, brought lawsuits to the courts to challenge the 19th Amendment, often because they believed Black women specifically were too inferior or uneducated to vote. For white women, the job was done, so Black women like Estelle found themselves fighting these lawsuits alone.

 

Some African-American women will vote with the 19th Amendment,” says Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. “Some are already voting in California, New York, and Illinois where state governments have authorized women’s votes. But many Black women faced the beginning of a new movement for voting rights in the summer of 1920, and it’s a struggle they will wage alone because now the organizations that had led the movement for women’s suffrage are disbanding.”

 

As soon as Black women were eligible to vote in Maryland—Sept. 21, 1920—Estelle began working to get them registered. “We women are especially bitter against the type of white politicians who said that we would not know a ballot if we saw one coming up the street,” Estelle said at the time. “We must register in order to vote, and we must vote in order to rebuke these politicians.” She also helped the suffragists in nearby Montgomery County. (Still, for many Black voters, this right was not truly secured until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was then largely gutted in 2013.)

 

Well into the 1930s, Estelle continued to advocate for social equity. She was active with the Republican Party and campaigned for anti-lynching laws. She was recognized by the NAACP’s Maryland State Conference of Branches with an Award of Honor for her “meritorious service in the cause of obtaining justice and full citizenship rights.” She was also part of the DuBois Circle, a group named after her teacher W.E.B DuBois.

 

The Circle was, according to Ashley Brooks writing for Alexander Street, “an organization of prominent black women, who discussed black literature and history as well as public policies.” In the 1930s, Estelle wrote to W.E.B. DuBois to advocate for her daughter, Dr. Louise Young.

 

Estelle and Howard welcomed baby Louise on June 7, 1907, when Estelle was 23 years old. As a student, Louise attended Colored High School, which would later be renamed Frederick Douglass High School, and she enrolled at Howard University in 1924 at age 17. There, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree. In 1930, she graduated from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., with her medical degree and a focus in obstetrics.

 

“I admired doctors,” Louise said, “and wanted to be able to send my prescriptions to my father’s drug store.” She joined her father as a first—becoming the first Black female physician in Maryland.

 

Now 23, Louise wanted to return to her hometown of Baltimore for her years of internship, but segregation narrowed her scope as it had narrowed her parents’. She initially set her sights on Provident Hospital, but as she told the Baltimore Sun in 1982, "At Provident, they said there was no place for a woman to sleep. And no place else in Baltimore was accepting blacks."

 

She instead interned at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., which was an affiliate of Howard University. After, in 1932, she claimed the space over her father’s pharmacy and opened her own medical practice. In March 1934, thanks to her mother’s support, she wrote back to W.E.B DuBois to accept his “invitation to be present at N.A.A.C.P. conference to be held in New York in August.”

 

Longtime friend Dr. Emerson C. Walden told the Baltimore Sun in 1997, "She was an outspoken advocate for female physicians. She wanted to see young people prepared for the field, not just in high school but at a younger age." From 1933 to 1940, Louise worked as a staff physician for the Maryland Training School for Girls, a facility for young girls, ages 12 to 18, who had been "adjudged delinquent on the basis of violations of laws, incorrigibility, truancy, or immorality,” and sent there by the court system. When 1933 Baltimore budget cuts eliminated medical positions in schools, Louise kept volunteering her time at Black schools to make sure the students still had access to care. 

 

During these years, one of Louise’s infant patients died, which lead her to reassess her medical focus. She sought out additional training in gynecology and became the first Black woman to train at the Baltimore Birth Control Clinic with Dr. Bettie Moses. Louise was an advocate for practical sex education, and she opened a Planned Parenthood Clinic in 1938 with funding from the Baltimore Birth Control Clinic. Her clinic was one of only three in the entire country staffed predominantly by Black medical personnel.

 

Estelle died in 1938. Her husband and Louise’s father Howard died in 1945. Both were buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts. 

 

After 10 years running her own clinics and volunteering at others, Louise finally got a position at Provident Hospital in obstetrics and gynecology. She would go on to serve as chief from 1950 until 1963. She also found time for romance, marrying three times, the last of which was to William E. Spencer in the 1970s. 

 

In his 1997 article, Robert Hilson Jr. of. the Baltimore Sun shared an anecdote of Louise’s determination and spirit, which also serves to highlight the unfair choice often forced upon working women. “Once, early in her practice, a male physician told her that it was a waste for a woman to get a medical education because she would eventually get married, have children and quit the profession. She countered that she planned to practice for at least half a century. She retired in 1984, after 52 years of practicing medicine.”

 

Louise died in 1997 of Alzheimer’s disease at age 90. She was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery beside her parents. 

 

 

Sources: 

Alexander Street: Biographical Sketch of Estelle Hall Young

Wikipedia: Howard E. YoungEstelle Hall YoungN. Louise Young

National Park Service: Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights

Time magazine: 'It's a Struggle They Will Wage Alone.' How Black Women Won the Right to Vote

The Guardian: In 2013 the supreme court gutted voting rights – how has it changed the US?

Dying to tell their stories: N. Louise Young Spencer, Maryland’s first African American female physician, delivered babies for 50+ years

Baltimore Sun: Dr. N. Louise Young, 90, physician was first black woman to practice in Md.

Umass Library: Letter from N. Louise Young to W.E.B. DuBois

Social Network Archival Content: Maryland. Training School for Colored Girls. Board of Managers.