African American Medical Professionals
The Case of Mistaken Identity and Researching African Americans at Penn
Undergraduate researchers with the Penn & Slavery Project have worked to uncover the stories and voices of enslaved and free African Americans at Penn. As is often the case with archival historical research, unearthing these stories is a complicated and challenging process that is filled with roadblocks. Sometimes these roadblocks arise because documents have been lost over time, or because the information was never recorded in the first place. These issues are particularly present and persistent in the study of African American lives. The archives can often erase or obscure the stories of African Americans.
Penn & Slavery Project researcher Bryan Anderson-Wooten confronted this problem as he began his research in Fall 2019. Anderson-Wooten wanted to uncover the experiences of African Americans at Penn in their own words. However, Anderson-Wooten found that the words of African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries were seldom recorded.
Anderson-Wooten then turned his attention to Nathan Mossell, who had left records in his own words. Mossell was the first African American to graduate from Penn’s medical school. His family subsequently developed deep ties to Penn. His brother was the first African American to graduate from Penn’s law school. His neice, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, was the first African American to receive a PhD in Economics and the first woman to graduate from Penn’s law school. Given his family’s prominence and his own historic importance, Mossell’s file in Penn’s own official records (the University Archives) was extensive, compared to other African Americans. Anderson-Wooten began with Mossell’s autobiography. This was the first instance in his research where Anderston-Wooten was able to read about the experiences of African Americans in the first person.
Mossell’s biography led Anderson-Wooten to discover the case of mistaken identity that ultimately enabled him to uncover the story of James Henry Wilson.
Nathan Mossell James Henry Wilson Alfred “Pomp” Wilson
There are three African American men who are integral to piecing together this archival mix-up. Nathan Mossell’s autobiography was key in uncovering the story of James Henry Wilson, the man whose life inspired one of the Penn Augmented Reality tour stops.
James Henry Wilson was the first African American man to receive a medical education at Penn. This achievement is distinct from Nathan Mossel’s, as Mossel was the first African American to graduate from Penn’s medical school. James Henry Wilson worked as a janitor at the medical school, but gained an education by listening closely to lectures and assisting with lessons. However, he was not acknowledged as a student, or as a doctor, by the university or by the white community.
James Henry Wilson’s story, and his expertise, were well known in the Black community in nineteenth- century Philadelphia. This is why Nathan Mossell wrote about James Henry Wilson in his autobiography. As Anderson-Wooten noted in his research paper, “Towards the end of his autobiography [Mossell] mentioned a ‘Dr. Wilson’ who gained a medical education at Penn while working as a janitor. 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 ‘examine a number of his prescriptions at Procter’s Drug Store at Ninth and Lombard Streets’ in what was then 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.’” (p. 6)
Anderson-Wooten tried to learn more information about James Henry Wilson. When he turned to the university’s official archives, however, he encountered a baffling and complicated archival mix-up. Penn’s official records contained material on an African American man who worked as a janitor during the nineteenth century, a man whom archivists believed to be named “Dr. Wilson.” According to University Archives, this was the same Dr. Wilson mentioned in Nathan Mossell’s autobiography. However, this turned out to be false information.
University Archives identified the Dr. Wilson whom Mossell referred to as Albert or Alfred Monroe “Pomp” Wilson. Alfred Wilson was an African American man who, like James Henry Wilson, worked as a janitor at Penn in the 19th century. Alfred Wilson worked for the student organization the Philomathean Society. Penn and Slavery undergraduate researcher, Ashley Waiters, had studied “Philo” and had come across the story of Alfred Wilson. Early Philomathean Society records described Alfred Wilson as the “young colored boy” who assisted Penn janitor Major Dick with maintenance work for the school. As Anderson-Wooten writes, Alfred Wilson underwent a “metamorphosis” in terms of how white students perceived him at Penn. “He went from being described ‘as a source of worriment and anxiety’ to winning the ‘respect and admiration of the society. 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.” (p. 7)
Initially, it seemed as though Albert Wilson and the man that Dr. Nathan Mossell had written about in his autobiography were the same person. However, upon closer examination of Albert Wilson’s file in the University Archives, Anderston-Wooten discovered several discrepancies. Among the most pronounced was an issue with the chronology. Albert Wilson was a janitor at Penn during the time that Nathan Mossell attended Penn’s medical schools. However in Nathan Mossell’s autobiography, he writes that Dr. Wilson died before Mossell could meet him. Additionally, Mossell believed that “Dr. Wilson” worked as a janitor only at the old campus, whereas Albert Wilson worked at both the old campus and the new West Philadelphia campus After discussing these discrepancies with then University Archivist Mark Lloyd, Bryan Anderson-Wooten concluded that Mossell’s “Dr. Wilson” was not the same man as Albert “Pomp” Wilson. Penn’s official records contained a serious error.
Anderson-Wooten delved further into this story, and found a critical piece of evidence: Dr. Wilson’s 1865 obituary from an African Methodist Episocal Church newspaper, The Christian Recorder. According to the obituary, “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.” (add cite) The obituary stated that Dr. Wilson was consulted by many prominent physicians, even though he was “cheated out of his diploma.” (cite)
Further research into James Henry Wilson revealed that his connection to Frederick Douglass. Wilson and Douglass both signed a pamphlet calling on African American men to join the Union army during the Civil War in 1863.
As Anderston-Wooten writes, “The journey to finding information on the ‘Dr. WIlson’ from Mossell’s biography was the result of not giving up. This semester was about persevering and moving on to new sources of information. The first stage of this journey began trying to recreate the lives of enslaved people. . . Finally, the focus upon African American medical professionals made it possible for me to work with sources authored by African Americans themselves. . . [Mossell’s] autobiography doubled as an unofficial memorial for black doctors that pathed the way for his accomplishments. What is now apparent is that there were two Wilsons at the University of Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Both gained the admiration and respect of students and faculty while there. Furthermore, both lived in Philadelphia’s 7th Ward community. However, until recently Albert “Pomp” Wilson and James Henry Wilson had been wrongly assumed to be the same person.” (12)