Bernard A. Drew: For his groundbreaking work in medicine, May Edward Chinn of Great Barrington deserves a commemorative stamp

Bernard A. Drew: For his groundbreaking work in medicine, May Edward Chinn of Great Barrington deserves a commemorative stamp

Don’t be surprised to see another Great Barrington native appear on a US Black Heritage postage stamp.

This month, three Manhattan women paid a visit to the city: Dolores Leito and Michelle Deal Winfield, co-chairs, and Christine Merritt, historian, all members of the honor committee of May Edward Chinn, physician. Frances Jones-Sneed and I caught up with them to learn more about their efforts to create a commemorative stamp featuring Dr. Chinn.

Chinn was included in “African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley”, for which Frances was associate editor and I was an editor in 2006. We knew she was born in Great Barrington.

In preparation for the meeting, I dug a little deeper into the history of the Church Street house in which Chinn was born. This part of the village between Main Street and the Housatonic River was gradually improved by George R. Ives, who in 1882 laid out Bridge Street, River Street and Church Street, dividing the land into building lots.

Maria Van Ness (1799-1872), a black woman who worked as a servant for Sarah, Mary and Nancy Kellogg at Rose Cottage on South Main Street, owned a building plot on Church Street. She was a sister of Othello Burghardt, the grandfather of WEB Du Bois.

She sold the land to Thomas Jefferson McKinley (c. 1784-1896). “Old Jeff” had fled New Orleans during the Civil War, after following troops of the 49th Massachusetts into Massachusetts. Gardening and peddling produce door to door, he earned his living. He had two children in the South but married here Margaret Cooley. He builds two apartments, lives in one and rents the other. In 1868 McKinley rented the second house to the recently married Alfred and Mary Burghardt Du Bois. Their son William Edward (1868-1963) was born there.

McKinley sold half of his estate to William L. Chinn in 1895. He was still living there, in care of the Chinns, when he died.

William Lafayette Chinn (1852-1936) was born in Brentsville, Virginia, and at the age of 11 escaped slavery from the Cheyne (Chinn) plantation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. William was the son of Benjamin Tasker Chinn (1807-1886), a white plantation owner, and probably Susan Spencer, an enslaved black woman. William Chinn traveled to Great Barrington, remembers his daughter May Edward Chinn, and worked odd jobs.

Chinn married Martha E. Gunn (1849-1937), with whom five children were born. She was part of the Stockbridge Gunn family, members of which still live in the Berkshires. The Chinns divorced and he married Lulu Ann Evans (1876-1942) and acquired the Church Street property. Lulu Chinn was the daughter of a black slave named Evans and a Native American woman Chickahominy. This Chinn union produced a daughter, May Edward Chinn (1896-1980).

The black people of Great Barrington established their own community through the African Methodist Episcopal Society, which met regularly in membership until their own Clinton AME Zion Church was built in 1887. William Chinn was one of them and her daughter was probably baptized here.

The family moved to New York in 1899. May Edward Chinn said her father, who was underemployed, was a drinker and quarrelsome. The parents separated but remained in contact.

May’s revolutionary path

May entered Teacher’s College at Columbia University in 1917 to study music. She worked as a technician in a pathology laboratory to earn money for her school fees. She became Paul Robeson’s piano accompanist. Changing courses, she took the Bellevue Hospital Medical School exam and was certified in 1921.

She interned at Harlem Hospital and was the first woman to ride with the ambulance crew on emergency calls. Chinn opened a private family practice and worked with other black doctors associated with Edgecombe Sanitarium. To overcome a color barrier in cancer research, she went with her patients to clinics in city hospitals to observe biopsy techniques.

She studied for a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University in 1933 and studied cytological methods for detecting cancer with Pap test developer Dr. George Papanicolaou from 1928 to 1933. She eventually earned privileges of admitted to Harlem Hospital. In 1944 she was invited to take up a position at the Strang Cancer Clinic until her retirement in 1974.

She became a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1954, and three years later the New York City Cancer Committee of the American Cancer Society awarded her a citation. Columbia University in 1980 awarded him an honorary doctorate of science for his contributions to medicine. For these reasons and more, visitors to Manhattan are advocating a stamp for Chinn.

What Happened to the McKinley Houses?

Chinn sold his property in 1898 to Stanley Instrument Co., who wanted it for an industrial site. In 1898, McKinley’s heirs sold the rental house to Alfred and Lulu Williams, and that property was razed as well. The two McKinley dwellings appear on a 1903 Sanborn insurance map and a 1904 Berkshire County Atlas map, but they do not survive much longer.

The Great Barrington Historical Society sign in front of the empty lot recognizes the Du Bois connection but not Chinn. A biography of the doctor for young readers, “May Chinn: The Best Medicine” by Ellen R. Butts & Joyce R. Schwartz, was published by WH Freeman & Co. in 1995.

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