The historical record and the archive perpetuate the obscuring and silencing of marginalized voices. These stories are often consigned to an inferior status, excluded, or never recorded at all. The record of Dr. James Henry Wilson is one such example of the erasure of African-American Medical Professionals. This exhibit is part of the effort to recover this history.
Dr. Nathan Mossell
Nathan Mossell was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. His file in the University Archives is extensive partly because of his family’s history at the University. His brother was the first African American to graduate from Penn law. A niece, Sadie Mossell Alexander, later attended the same law school and was the first woman to graduate. His file offers a glimpse of his life as a black medical student in an all-white institution.
Dr. Mossell enrolled in medical school in 1879 after completing his undergraduate education at Lincoln University (Mossell). According to his own account, at the start of his first class at Penn he received a mixed response. He was called racial epithets but also defended by some fellow students against such attacks. Mossell revealed that he was met with a standing ovation at his graduation in 1882. He went on to open Philadelphia’s first black medical facility for black patients, Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital (Mossell).
Unlike other archival documents, Nathan Mossell's were in the first person and authored by an African American from Penn. He documented the effects of institutional racism. His papers, moreover, left a documentary trail that offers a glimpse into the lives of Black people at Penn even before his own time in the Medical School. Towards the end of his autobiography, he mentioned a “Dr. Wilson” who gained a medical education at Penn while working as a janitor who became the subject of P&SP student Bryan Anderson-Wooten's research.
A janitor’s job in the 19th century included cleaning duties as well as collecting class tuition and assisting professors with different odd jobs. Mossell describes “Dr. Wilson” as a “favorite of the University Staff, for he was permitted to attend lecture.” Mossell also claimed to have “examine[d] a number of his prescriptions at Procter’s Drug Store at Ninth and Lombard Streets” in what was known as the 7th Ward, the location of one of Philadelphia’s historic black communities. Mossell claimed that Wilson’s work included excellent “penmanship and orthography.” Files at the University Archives misidentified the Wilson mentioned by Mossell as the man also known to be a janitor at Penn, Albert Monroe Wilson.
Albert Monroe Wilson
Albert Monroe Wilson first appeared in Penn’s Philomathean Society records incorrectly as “Alfred Wilson.” He is described as the “young colored boy” who assisted Penn janitor Major Dick with maintenance work for the school. However, as time went on, Alfred Wilson garnered respect. The Philomathean Society’s records state that Wilson went through a metamorphosis. He went from being described “as a source of worriment and anxiety” to winning the “respect and admiration” of the society “as the years passed away.” This change in attitude can be seen in the Society’s historical minutes. Wilson went from being referred to as “Dick’s Boy”, to “Alfred” or “Alfred Wilson”, and then “Mr. Alfred Wilson.” By the time of his death, he was affectionately known as “Pomp” and had at one time been nominated for membership into the Philomathean Society.
Alfred Wilson’s file in the University Archives stated that he had ceased any form of formal education after being hit in the head with an object during a brawl at the age of 9. Furthermore, it appeared from the dates of archival accounts that Albert Wilson served as a janitor during the time that Dr. Nathan Mossell attended Penn. This information was impossible to reconcile with Mossell’s account that Dr. Wilson had died before Mossell could meet him. Additionally, it seems that Mossell believed that “Dr. Wilson” worked as a janitor only at the 9th and Market campus site, but Albert Wilson worked at both the 9th and Market location and the new West Philadelphia campus. Finally, Albert Wilson is listed in the archives as primarily aiding professors in the college. For example, there is evidence that he frequently helped physics Professor Henry Morton in his laboratory. The only time he is definitively mentioned in connection with the Medical School is during his time at the Hall Surgeon on 5th street. Even in that capacity, he is a laborer who slept on campus because of his long and tedious work there. After further discussion with Mark Lloyd, researcher Bryan Anderson-Wooten concluded that Mossell’s “Dr. Wilson” was not the same man as Albert “Pomp” Wilson.
A careful reading of Mossell’s biography and a closer examination of Albert Wilson’s file revealed several discrepancies. University Archives records incorrectly identified Albert Wilson as the “Dr. Wilson” Dr. Mossell wrote about in his autobiography.
Dr. James Henry Wilson
James Henry Wilson is significant because his biography reveals how the archives can erase the stories of African Americans. This discovery illustrates how examining historical records using alternative methodologies can unearth previously unknown historical truths.
Wilson's 1865 obituary from an African Methodist Episcopal Church newspaper, The Christian Recorder provides important information that likely comes from family and friends who knew him personally. The excerpt below illustrates that this Dr. Wilson had studied at numerous schools during the 1840s in an attempt to obtain a medical degree. He preferred to do this on his own, without drawing on the available financial resources of his parents. Instead, he gained employment as a janitor. In between work shifts, he participated in medical courses.
“Nothing daunted, he, like Peter of Russia, even though his father was comparatively wealthy, hired himself at the Academy of Natural Sciences-then in the College of Pharmacy-diligently applying himself to lectures and books at his command. From this institution, he passed, in the same capacity, to the Jefferson Medical College, and afterwards to the Medical Department of that ancient seat of learning, the University of Pennsylvania “
Unfortunately, like the “Dr. Wilson” in Mossell’s autobiography, James Henry Wilson was not granted a degree from any of these colleges (Weaver). The obituary provides further evidence of the discrepancies between Albert Wilson and Mossell’s “Dr. Wilson.” For example, a young James Henry Wilson is depicted as a “bright lad” and “head of his class (Weaver).” Even after he failed to gain a degree, he went on to open a business with Dr. David Peck, the first African American to graduate from medical school. Consistent with Mossell’s autobiography, James is referred to in his obituary as “Dr. Wilson.” His obituary stated that even without a degree “some of our most prominent physicians, as Pennypacker, Ludlow, Smith, Bolder, Carson, Allen, and many others, freely consulted with Dr. Wilson, knowing, as we have said, his ability, and knowing also, that he was cheated out of his diploma.”
By referring to James Henry Wilson as “Dr, Wilson,” Mossell was purposefully using a “methodology that purposely subverts the overdetermining power of” erasure in the archives. Instead of writing specifically about the talented all-white faculty of his alma mater, he incorporated medical professionals in the black community who would not normally receive praise from a Penn medical graduate. His autography doubled as an unofficial memorial for the black doctors who paved the way for his own accomplishments.
~Research Conducted by Bryan Anderson-Wooten