Editor’s note: The following is the first of two “From the Archives” articles regarding the Buxton Mission School and its surgeon graduates. The second article will be featured in the May 2022 issue of the Bulletin.
One solution to the underrepresentation of racial minorities in medical professions is to provide an educational “pipeline” that directs promising students toward careers in medicine, with instruction and training for the successive steps necessary to complete a medical degree. An early example of the approach was the Buxton Mission School, the mid-19th century school founded in Canada for the children of enslaved Blacks from the American South who came to the area by way of the Underground Railroad and free Blacks seeking a better way of life.1
The school, founded to provide a classical education to Black students, achieved the exact goal sought by underrepresented minority programs in the 21st century. Four of its remarkable inaugural six-student class of 1850 became physicians, of whom three became surgeons to the Union Army in the Civil War.*2
Founding of the Buxton Mission School
Rev. William King (1812–1895), an Irish immigrant who settled in Louisiana, married into a southern slave-owning family, inheriting 15 enslaved people when his wife died in 1846. Because of state laws against manumission, Reverend King took them to Canada in 1848, effectively freeing them. With other abolitionists in the Free Presbyterian Church of Canada, Reverend King established the Elgin Association, an organization devoted to the resettlement of refugees from slavery from America.1
The association obtained land for an all-Black community in a largely rural area in southwestern Ontario called the Elgin Settlement. Its nucleus was Reverend King’s former slaves. New arrivals were given the chance to obtain up to 50 acres of land at $2.50 an acre, payable in 10 annual installments. By 1857, the community had 200 families and a population of 800, with a sawmill, a brickyard, a pearl ash factory, a blacksmith, a carpenter, shoe shops, and a well-provisioned general store.
Reverend King believed that Black children deserved a standard classical education and not just vocational training. He founded two schools at the Buxton settlement—one for boys, the other for girls. The Buxton Mission School (see photo) developed a reputation for the excellence of its instruction and grew quickly to a combined enrollment of 140. In 1850, Royal Assent was given to an act that ended the practice of segregating schools by race and religion. Within two years, the Buxton Mission School began enrolling White students and thus became the first racially integrated public school in North America.3
Its remarkable inaugural class of 1850 had six graduates, four of whom would become physicians. Three became surgeons for the Union Army in the last years of the Civil War. They had distinctive careers and colorful lives:
- Anderson R. Abbott, MD (1837–1913), one of the surgeons attending to President Abraham Lincoln when he died
- Jerome Riley, MD (1840–1929, who was an active politician and pamphleteer in the Democratic Party in Arkansas at a time when most Blacks in the South were Republicans
- John H. Rapier Jr., MD (1835–1866), an ardent Black nationalist whose extended mixed-race family lineage included one of the US Supreme Court Justices who voted with the majority in the Dred Scott decision of 1857
Their stories, which will be featured in the second part of this two-part series, reveal the unleashed human potential when students repressed by the strictures of racism are given educational opportunity.
This article is a précis of a chapter coauthored by Vivian McAlister, MB, FACS, Shannon Prince, Catherine Slaney, PhD, and Dr. Nakayama in Black Surgeons and Surgery in America (Chicago: American College of Surgeons; 2021). The book is available for download or purchase at https://www.facs.org/publications/black-surgeons-and-surgery-in-america.
*Note: The other Buxton physician was Richard Johnson, MD, who attended medical school at Edinburgh University, Scotland, and became a missionary in Africa. Its two nonmedical alumni were Thomas Stringer (1815–1893), who became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and in 1869 became Mississippi’s first Black state senator; and Alfred Lafferty (1839–1912), who graduated from the University of Toronto with first-class honors in classics and mathematics and became a well-known lawyer and educator.2
- Landon F. The Buxton settlement in Canada. J Negro Hist. 1918;3(4):360-367.
- Prince S, Slaney C, McCalister VC, Nakayama DK. Canada, incubator of Black American surgeons. In: Black Surgeons and Surgery in America. Edited by Nakayama DK. Chicago, IL: American College of Surgeons, 2021.
- Slaney C. Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line. Toronto: Natural Heritage/National History; 2003.