Dr. Rivers Frederick was born May 22, 1874 to George Frederick and Armantine Dalcourt. Rivers grew up in a large Creole family of twelve children on the Drouillard Plantation in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. At age 26, Frederick left the plantation and enrolled in New Orleans’s historically black college, Straight University (later Dillard University).
In 1894, Frederick graduated from Straight University and matriculated at the Medical College of New Orleans. Frederick’s training in New Orleans was interrupted, however. In 1896, Dr. Frederick left New Orleans and continued his education at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago (known today as the UIC college of medicine). Frederick’s change in schools was motivated by the need to study in a hospital that admitted black medical students. Since black medical students were not permitted to study in hospitals in New Orleans, Frederick made the journey north to Chicago. In 1897, Frederick became the first African American to graduate from the new Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons with a medical degree. He then won a highly competitive 18-month scholarship to the John B. Murphy Surgical Clinic at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, based on his examination scores. Up to this time, Rivers Frederick had financed his education exclusively with the help of family members and by tutoring (Cherrie).
During this post-graduation period, Frederick married a white woman, Adele Boui, and purchased a 210-acre plantation in Louisiana. In 1899, after completing his 2-year surgical internship, he returned to practice medicine in Louisiana (DeCuir). At the time, it was rare for black physicians to return South, but Frederick joined the less than 50 African American physicians in Louisiana who cared for the state’s black population of half a million. On his return, Frederick became the parish doctor for a mixed-race practice, and was welcomed by patients in the community. However, Frederick’s marriage was treated with hostility by some members of the white community, and he was forced to travel to Spanish Honduras to continue his practice. In Central America, he became surgeon-in-chief for a government facility. Unfortunately, the physician contracted malaria and eventually planned his return to the United States. Significantly, when Frederick came back to Louisiana after 4 years, he relocated to New Orleans and eschewed Pointe Coupee (Cherrie).
After his return to New Orleans (between 1904-1906), Frederick became an Associate Professor of Surgery at Flint Medical School, where he stayed until 1908. Frederick’s first wife, Adele gave birth to their first of their 2 children, Pearl, on June 18, 1906. In 1908, Frederick accepted the post of Chief Surgeon at Sarah Goodridge Hospital in New Orleans, where he remained until 1913. In this period, his second daughter, Lolita, was born (June 27, 1911) (Amistad Research Center website).
In 1923, Frederick became one of the founders of the black-owned Louisiana Life Insurance Company, known today as the Universal Life Insurance Company. Frederick filled the roles of a board member, secretary, vice-president, and president. Later, he became the principal stockholder. DeCuir discusses the importance of the black-owned insurance companies in softening the lines of division between the “American black and Creole economic elite.” Intermarriages among these board members and business alliances among the economic elites helped create prosperity and jobs for other blacks in the wider community (Decuir). Black physicians held very significant roles within their communities and the impact of their support for civil rights issues was potent in advancing the movement (Decuir). DeVore makes the point that Frederick maintained a degree of understatement in his public persona for several reasons related to desire to maintain influence and work diplomatically for his community:
… [He] allowed himself to be viewed only in non- controversial roles by the white community of New Orleans. He was seen as a humanitarian, a competent professional, and a champion of better medical care for blacks in Louisiana. With this special image, he was able to secure favors for many blacks from the white power structure.”67 Dr. Frederick played an instrumental role in the formation of the local NAACP Branch and remained a life member. He was also active in the Urban League and devoted time and gave money to solve problems within the black community.
In 1913, Frederick departed from Sarah Goodrich Hospital to become a surgeon for the Southern Pacific Railway in New Orleans. He remained with the railroad until 1932 when he took up the position of Chief of Surgery at the Flint-Goodridge Hospital at Dillard University. Frederick stayed at Flint-Goodridge until 1950 as he built the Department of Surgery and trained many new surgeons. The expansive Frederick evolved and broadened his post-graduate teaching program by reaching out to collaborate with a diverse and integrated faculty from Tulane and Louisiana State University. Frederick’s biographer, Cherrie, memorialized this innovative surgeon’s achievement and leadership in the midst of intractable bias in some quarters of the profession:
Flint-Goodridge maintained its AHA standards and he enlisted the city’s finest white physicians to practice there along with its black physicians. He would continue to serve on the staff of Flint for more than forty years. In spite of all his accomplishments, Dr. Frederick was denied membership in both the American College of Surgeons and the International College of Surgeons for many years because of racism. (Cherrie)
In 1934, Frederick became the first vice-president of the National Medical Association. In 1935, he served as the New Orleans General Local Chairman for National Medical Association and was part of the committee to consider the establishment of the organization’s home (Amistad Research Center website, Historical Note).
Frederick married his second wife, Eloise Clarke and in 1939, his son Rivers Jr. was born.
In 1950, Frederick retired as Chief of Surgery at the Flint-Goodridge Hospital in 1950, and he became a Consultant in Surgery. In an article, “Dr. Rivers Frederick Receives Distinguished Service Award for 1951,” published by JNMA (1951), Dr. Frederick’s many awards and honors, reflecting his great achievements across a career of service, including the decades at Flint-Goodridge, were summarized:
He is a fellow of the International College of Surgeons and a diplomate of the International Board of Surgery. He is a member of the Louisiana and Orleans Parish Medical Societies and chief consultant of the Robinson Infirmary and Clinic. At the Annual Assembly of the International College of Surgeons in Florence, Italy in 1951, he was made a member of the Societa Tosco Umbra di Italia.
He has been an active community service as a member of the Medical Advisory Board of Flint-Goodridge Hospital of Dillard University, the New Orleans Executive Committee of the American Cancer Society, the Executive Committee of the New Orleans Tuberculosis Association, the Mayor’s Advisory Committee, the New Orleans Committee on Race Relations, and the Advisory Council to the Governor (Louisiana) on Civil Defense. He is an associate Medical Adviser to the Selective Service Board.
Dr. Frederick has been a recipient of numerous citations and honors. These include an Award of Merit for Outstanding Service, by the American Cancer Society, a Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Achievement, by the National Urban League, a “Real Salute” from Radio Station WTPS (Music of New Orleans) in 1949, and honorary presidency of the New Orleans Urban League. In 1947 Dr. Frederick was honored at a public testimonial at Flint-Goodridge Hospital where a portrait was unveiled celebrating fifty years of medical practice.
…Dr. Frederick is a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a life member of the Louisiana Education Association. He belongs to the Chi Delta Mu and the Phi Beta Sigma fraternities. (Dr. Rivers Frederick Distinguished…)
Noting the absent mention of ACS in foregoing declaration, we note that the National Medical Association’s position at the time stands in stark contrast with that of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) in the same era. The discrimination of the ACS against black surgeons was very controversial in the 20th century. When the African-American surgeon, Dr. Thorne was rejected, no less than New York governor, Thomas Dewey launched an inquiry into the ACS’s blockade against their deserving fellow surgeons of color. According to Thomas Ward, author of Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South, the “firestorm” that called Dewey into action, also resulted in a sea change in the ACS, at least as it functioned in the North states:
…the ACS quickly amended its policy so that any certified surgeon was eligible for membership and stated that black physicians were not required to be members of the AMA if they lived in a region where they were excluded from their local AMA affiliate because of their race. Under this new policy fourteen black surgeons, all northerners, were soon elected to the fellowship.49 (Ward)
The story was different, however, in the South where the ACS local boards, like other specialties in the region, persisted in their discrimination toward black physicians. Ward tells the story of the moral war waged between the North-South surgical leadership in the late 1940’s. Remember, Frederick was known to both sides of the dispute Ward describes:
Rivers Frederick of New Orleans was a victim of this discrimination. The longtime chief of surgery at Flint-Goodridge Hospital, Frederick was denied membership to both the American College of Surgeons and the International College of Surgeon by local white physicians. In 1948, Ulysses Grant Dailey, chief surgeon of Chicago’s Provident Hospital and diplomate of the International College of Surgeons (ICS), protested the rejection of Frederick’s application to the society’s local director, William Bendel. Dr. Bendel informed Dailey that it was the wish of the New Orleans chapter of ICS not to admit Frederick to membership and that “we do not want you in Illinois trying to tell us in Louisiana what to do.” He added that “Dr. Fredericks [sic] application for membership has been rejected by the American College of Surgeons and I don’t know why you would want us to do different…[as] we feel that we have as good or a better organization.”50 (Ward)
Dr. Frederick died on September 2, 1954.
In her historical review and 2009 dissertation, “Attacking Jim Crow: black activism 1925-1941,” Sharlene Sinegal DeCuir offers this tribute to the extraordinary path cut by Rivers Frederick through the tumultuous days Jim Crow:
By the 1930’s, Frederick had become the most prominent black doctor in Louisiana and one of the best surgeons in the South. 59… The American black, Creole and white communities, viewed Frederick as a great doctor and true professional. He was a unifier in the American black and Creole communities. His insurance company, the Louisiana Industrial Life Insurance Company, employed both American blacks and Creoles. His family ties brought American blacks and Creoles together through business and private ventures. Frederick’s wealth and social status allowed him to provide financial support and secure favors for black organizations. He provided financial support for both the NAACP and the Urban League, but he preferred not to participate in forwarding their agendas because he did not want to undermine his favor with whites. He was one of the few Creole or American black doctors who worked with white patients. By the time of his death in 1954, Frederick’s assets totaled more than 1.5 million dollars. (Decuir)
How honored we have been by his presence among us and his service.
Frederick, Rivers (1874-1956). Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana. Biographical note on Rivers Frederick Papers. Accessed May 2020 at: http://amistadresearchcenter.tulane.edu/archon/index.php?p=collections/findingaid&id=18&q=&rootcontentid=6365#id6365
Cherrie, Lolita V. “Overcoming Adversities: The Life of Dr. Rivers Frederick (1874-1954). On the CREOLEGEN website, March 16, 2013. Accessed May 2020 at: http://www.creolegen.org/2013/03/16/overcoming-adversities-the-life-of-dr-rivers-frederick-1874-1954/
DeCuir, Sharlene Sinegal. “Attacking Jim Crow: black activism in New Orleans 1925-1941.” (2009), Accessed May 2020 at: https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_dissertations/1869
DeVore, D. E. (1989). Race Relations and Community Development: The Education of Blacks in New Orleans, 1862-1960. Accessed May 2020 at:https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5838&context=gradschool_disstheses
“Dr. Rivers Frederick Receives Distinguished Service Award for 1951.” Journal of the National Medical Association vol. 43,6 (1951): 400. Accessed May 2020 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2617037/
Ward, T. J. (2003). Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South. University of Arkansas Press.