In honor of Black History Month, SCDNP looks at influential people and events in the African American community of South Carolina throughout the month of February.
At a time when both women and African Americans were prohibited from doing many things, Matilda Evans never let these two obstacles stop her from accomplishing her goals. Born and raised in 1872 in Aiken, South Carolina, Evans attended Schofield Normal and Industrial School (a school dedicated to the education of black students) as a child. Encouraged by the school’s founder, Martha Schofield, Evans went on to study at Oberlin College in Ohio. Developing a strong interest in medicine, Evans left Oberlin prior to graduating and spent time teaching in order to save money to attend medical school. She soon enrolled in the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia where she received her Medical Degree in 1897.
Although her original intention had been to practice medicine as a foreign missionary, her time in school helped her to understand the grossly inadequate health care available to the black population of her home state. Upon graduating, Evans moved to Columbia and began her own practice, becoming the first licensed African American female physician in the state. Evans’ achievements overcame many obstacles. During this time, most medical schools did not allow African American students. The medical practice was also largely male dominated, but schools such as WMC, where Evans attended, were attempting to change this standard by educating only women. An article about Evans’ new practice in The Anderson Intelligencer from 1897 relayed the significance that “a woman doctor is somewhat a novelty in this city and a colored one is an unexpected innovation in the medical profession.”
Once in Columbia, Evans began a private practice out of her own home where she treated both white and black patients. Although rare for the time, Evans’ reputation of professionalism attributed to her large, diverse clientele. Helping many wealthy white patients, Evans often used the funds received from them to cover the cost of providing free care to poor black patients, especially women and children. By 1901, Evans established Taylor Lane Hospital and Training School for Nurses, Columbia’s first black-owned hospital (the hospital’s name later changed to St. Luke’s Hospital and Training School for Nurses after the original one was destroyed by a fire in 1911). Serving as the director until 1918, Evans focused heavily on training African American nurses at her hospital. At the time, St. Luke’s was only the fourth hospital in the country to also operate as a school for nurses.
In addition to teaching nurses and treating patients at her hospital, Evans also worked to reach out to her community. She focused much of her attention into the well-being of black children. Realizing how little health care they were receiving, Evans often paid for checkups out of her own pocket. Evans took it upon herself to implement regular health examinations in schools and encouraged public schools to employ physicians. She also strongly advocated preventative medicine, seeing the need to deliver medical information about sanitary habits and other safe health practices directly to the people. When the Depression caused federal funds to cease for many types of health care, Evans continued to provide those services which included maternity and infant care. By 1932, Evans opened up a walk-in clinic in Columbia.
Although she never moved from her home state, Evans’ impact reached far beyond the borders of South Carolina. Newspapers from around the country printed articles about her and her accomplishments, including The San Mateo Item in Florida, The Colfax Gazette in Washington, and The Broad Ax, an African American paper out of Utah. Her dedication and passion not only made proper health care available to many African Americans for the first time, Evans vastly improved health awareness among the black community.