Joyceann’s Corner – Riley

My next episode is on another family member that has contributed to our rich legacy.

Jerome R. Riley, MD

1843-1929

Medical Doctor, Author, and Political and Civil Rights Activist.

Jerome was the Second son of Isaac and Catherine Riley (the first settlers of the Elgin Settlement in Buxton, Ontario,

Medical Doctor, Author, and Political and Civil Rights Activist.

During the war between the states, at the urging of his close friend Anderson Abbott, in 1864 he left his practice in Chatham and joined the Union Army as a contract surgeon. He was among the original founders of the Freedmen’s Hospital. The forerunner of Howard University Hospital.

Dr. Jerome R. Riley was born in St. Catherines, Canada West on March 17, 1840 to Isaac and Catherine Riley. His father and mother were runaway slaves that made their way with two small babies from Perry County, Missouri, stopping in Michigan; then crossing over to Windsor and on to St. Catherines. In 1849, the Riley’s read in a bulletin of the colored settlement to be built at Buxton, Township of Raleigh, Kent County, Canada by the Rev. William King. At 9 years old Riley along with his family were the first settlers in Buxton.  Later, his mother often said, “There we were in darkness here we are in the light.”

At age ten Riley was the prize pupil with the ability to recite long passages in Latin from Virgil’s Aeneid and then translate the sense of the verses.  Six years later, to his parents’ delight;   Jerome was among the first four graduates of the Buxton Mission School, gaining a classical education including Latin and mathematics in an integrated setting in 1850.  In 1856, he attended Knox College, University of Toronto, graduating with honors. By 1861, Riley received his license to practice medicine in Canada West. Ten years later he continued to upgrade his medical knowledge attending both the Chicago Medical College for a year then from the pleadings of his great friend Dr. Alex Augusta he transferred back to Howard University Medical College graduating with a medical degree in Allopath-1873.

In 1901 he wrote, “Evolution or Racial Development” (published by J.S. Ogilvie, New York). In 1903, the Byrd Printing Co. (Atlanta) published his third book “Reach the Reached Negro”. 

He became an active ‘Redeemer’ Democrat and participated in the 1874 Constitutional Convention in Arkansas. The Democrats made a point of retaining the controversial civil rights provisions of their predecessors. New York Herald reporter Charles Nordhoff visited Arkansas in 1875 and found Riley employed as the  County Physician and Coroner. When asked about employment opportunities Dr. Riley boasted that “more colored men were elected and commissioned to offices of trust and pay” than under the Republicans. In the summer of 1877,  he married the former Agnes M. Nalle of Virginia.  

Ten years later, a black reporter from the Indianapolis Freedman newspaper was so impressed with the situation he found in Arkansas that he dubbed the state the “Negro Paradise.”  Within two years in 1890, Jim Crow laws were adopted in Arkansas; no black man served in public office again until the 1960’s Civil Rights legislation.  It wasn’t long after this article appeared in print, Dr. Riley lost his position and returned to the District of Columbia. 

In 1895, the local newspaper; the Washington Bee heralded Dr. Riley as a particular genius and the most gifted writer of the African American race. The comment was made in reference to the latest publication and most popular of Dr. Riley’s work  “The Philosophy of Negro Suffrage” a written work on race problems.

Dr. Riley took on a position as a Capital Watchman at a salary of $900 per annum.  He continued his active quest in civic affairs and the political arena.  In 1894 he was appointed the Deeds Clerk for the district winning out over 91 applicants. In 1891, the Democratic Party of the District of Columbia elected Dr. Riley as their President. He would serve two terms for the William J. Bryan Colored Democratic Club.  

His opposition to American imperialism in the wake of the Spanish American War was motivation to help found the “National Negro Anti-Expansion, Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Trust, and Anti-Lynching League” or the “National Negro League” (for short) and they combated several issues as is clear by their name. Their effects had limited influence at best but did offer a choice for those black activists who felt alienated from the Republican Party.  

Dr. Riley remained politically involved, resided in Brooklyn, Kings, New York, and continued to write and accept speaking engagements until his death on Dec 31, 1929.

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