Civil Rights Tour: Civic Activism - Dorothy Ferebee, Access for All

1809 2nd Street NW

On her way to becoming a nationally renowned public health and civil rights activist in the 1940s, Dorothy Boulding Ferebee (1898-1980) moved to DC in 1925 for an internship at Howard University's Freedmen's Hospital. She had been among the top five graduates in her class at Tufts University. At Howard, Ferebee went on to serve as a longtime clinical instructor in obstetrics and to direct the university's health service.

Just four years after her arrival in DC, Ferebee established Southeast Settlement House at 301 G Street SE to provide recreation and daycare for children living around Capitol Hill, where the only other such facility served whites only. In 1935, she began spending her summers leading the Mississippi Health Project, a mobile clinic and education program for sharecropper families whose diets were commonly limited to items they could purchase at a worksite commissary. Many had never tasted fruit, Ferebee later recalled. The program was staffed by student members of the prestigious Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority, of which Ferebee became national president in 1939. That spring, she also helped enroll more than 2,200 new members in the newly reorganized DC branch of the NAACP, as director of its fundraising campaign.

During World War II (1941-1945), Ferebee was a fierce advocate for increasing women's employment in the military and in government service, and in 1944, she played an integral role in desegregating the US Navy's women's branch, known as the WAVES. After the war, Ferebee succeeded Mary McLeod Bethune as president of the National Council of Negro Women, where she continued to fight for integration and equal pay in federal employment, voting rights, and access to health care. During her tenure at the helm of NCNW, Ferebee organized a reception at the Shoreham, marking the first time a major DC hotel had rented its main ballroom to African Americans.

In 1955, Ferebee joined a delegation of women in urging the US Attorney General to help quell racial violence in the South. "How can we tell the women in those areas to register and vote when they are in fear and terror of their lives if they attempt to exercise this right?" she asked. The group blamed the Attorney General for encouraging violence by neglecting to thoroughly investigate crimes against Black citizens or to put white supremacist citizens councils "on the subversive list." Ten years later, when she was 65, Ferebee traveled to Alabama to help register voters in a county where fewer than two percent of more than 15,000 eligible African Americans were registered to vote.

As chair of the DC Commission on the Status of Women in her later years, Ferebee advocated for the hiring of women police officers and against the expansion of prison facilities for women, who, she said, would be better served by community-based programs.

Dorothy Ferebee lived at 1809 2nd Street NW.