Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Rapier, John H., Jr.(1835–1865) - Physician, dentist, Views on Emigration and Civil Rights,  , Chronology

Sojourns in the Caribbean and Returns to United States

rapier uncle dentistry dental

Still searching for social and professional opportunities, Rapier left Minnesota in 1860 for Haiti, the first free black island in the western hemisphere. For more than a year, he taught English to mulatto children in Port-au-Prince. Through careful observation, he realized that Haitian society, like that in the United States, was based on color. Rapier was very light-skinned and perhaps could be mistaken for white. In Haiti, skin color could work as a social stigma and/or cause one physical danger. There was a deep chasm between light- and dark-skinned Haitians. Perhaps this irony reminded him of the same relationship between dark- and light-skinned blacks in the United States. Thus, what Rapier was partially fleeing from, he encountered in Haiti. In addition, he was frightened by the political instability and potential threat of violence provoked by international pressures. Sensing the threatening mood of the country, he traveled to Kingston, the capital of British Jamaica in 1861, where he studied dentistry for two years. Alexander quotes from a letter Rapier wrote his uncle James Thomas, in which he described the profession of dentistry, the patient’s “scream of agony” and the extracted tooth with parts of “the jawbone sticking” to it. In the letter, Rapier offers upon his return to the United States to extract two of his uncle’s front teeth to demonstrate.

The sadistic tone underlying this description was an in-house joke. As a young boy, Rapier had seen both his father and uncle James offer dental services such as tooth extraction to their barber customers. Because the field was so primitive—at the time dentists were thought of as little more than tooth-pullers—their practice was totally unregulated and barbers often offered dental services as an appendage to hair trimming. In Jamaica, the field of dentistry was becoming more respectable among the learned professions. Rapier was of the opinion that he could master the profession and earn a fair amount of respectability. After completing his dental studies, he contemplated starting his own dental practice. However, he did not have the money that would require. His uncle advised him to return home, but Rapier was adamant about not returning to the United States. Hoping that his uncle would quickly provide financial assistance, Rapier devised a plan to practice dentistry and medicine. It was a very common practice through the end of the nineteenth century to acquire credentials and work simultaneously in dentistry, medicine, pharmacy, and other related fields. Rapier planned to use funds earned from dentistry to support his medical studies. Thinking that this plan would impress his uncle, he began to solicit funds from him to set up a dental office in rural Jamaica.

After repeatedly being prodded, his uncle sent only half of the money Rapier requested. Without sufficient money, Rapier decided to abandon dentistry and study only medicine. So, with different professional aspirations, he left Jamaica in 1862 and returned to the United States. Not having enough funds to immediately enroll in medical school, he began teaching school. Having saved enough funds, without the help of his uncle, Rapier enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1863 in the department of medicine and surgery. As the first black to be accepted in the program, he met with adversity. This adversity was not due to a lack of qualifications. He had impressed the faculty with his knowledge of Latin, natural and mathematical sciences, and current medical techniques and prescriptions. Both the faculty and students were hostile toward him for presuming that he had a right to study there, much less to be accepted on an equal basis with whites.

Only a few months after being admitted to the university, Rapier withdrew in the autumn of 1863 and enrolled in the medical school at Iowa State University in Keokuk. The following June, he completed his medical degree and applied to the U.S. Army for the position of acting assistant surgeon at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D. C. At the hospital he noticed the respect that enlisted white men gave to the black army officers. Although working long hours at the hospital, Rapier was able to talk to both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln about the condition of blacks in the South. Between work and what he perceived as his social obligation to blacks, he never had enough rest.

Although there are discrepancies about the year of his death, Alexander indicates that Rapier served in this acting position until his death in 1865, at the age of twenty-nine. If this is the correct year for his death, then he died at the same age as his mother. It is ironic that he spent his life traveling in search of peace, which he ultimately found in military service during the American Civil War.

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or