Rapier, John H., Jr.

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John H. Rapier, Jr.

Physician, dentist

John H. Rapier Jr., frustrated by the racial climate in the United States, pursued professional opportunities in the Caribbean. However, he returned to the United States to complete a medical degree and became one of the first acting assistant surgeons at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Rapier was born on July 28, 1835, one of four sons. Around 1831, John Rapier Sr., a barber, married Susan, a nineteen-year-old free black from Baltimore, Maryland. From this marriage, six children were born. John's three brothers were Richard, Henry, and James, who became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama during Reconstruction. According to Loren Schweninger, six years after John's birth, Susan, his mother, died in childbirth at the age of twenty-nine along with her twin infants, Jackson and Alexander.

After the death of Susan, John Sr. acquired a slave woman named Lucretia to help care for the four boys. However, in 1848, although not formally married due to the law that restricted free blacks from marrying slaves, he started a second family. Their five children were Rebecca, Joseph, Thomas, Charles, and Susan. Attempting to secure the freedom of his second family, John Sr. applied to the Lauderdale County Court, but to no avail. His family remained in bondage, technically speaking, until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Always concerned about the welfare of his children, John Sr. set aside funds for their education. The barbering business, after forty years, had been lucrative, and John wanted his sons to have good educational opportunities. Therefore, he sent them to Nashville, Tennessee to stay with their slave grandmother, Sally. Because Sally had lived in Nashville for so long and she had operated as a free black in an entrepreneurialcapacity, whites thought she was free. In Nashville, John and his brothers received a rudimentary education for six years. John had learned to write poetry at the age of ten. After completing this education, the boys moved back to Alabama. Upon the advice of his father, John Jr. left Alabama, intending to emigrate to Liberia.

Views on Emigration and Civil Rights

Disillusioned with the racial climate in the United States, in late 1854 and early 1855, John Rapier Jr. contacted the president of the American Colonization Society. After two inquiries and no reply, he abandoned the idea of going to Liberia and decided to join his uncle, James P. Thomas, who was making arrangements to emigrate to Central America. After arriving in Central Amer-ica, Rapier realized that the poverty and misery for blacks in Central America was worse than for U.S. blacks. According to Philip Alexander, this factor prompted Rapier, after a few months, to return to the United States and initiate a freelance career in journalism in Minnesota, where his father had some real estate interests there. During the next four years, Rapier wrote more than one hundred articles for five different Minnesotan newspapers, including the Little Falls Pioneer and Democrat and the St. Paul Times. His themes varied but one interesting subject he elaborated on was the civil rights of colored children in St. Paul, especially regarding the absence of educational facilities, particularly since blacks paid school taxes. Elsewhere in his writing he chided federal officials for not accepting homestead applications submitted by blacks. Frustrated and upset, in 1858, he wrote an electrifying address urging blacks to leave the United States because of its unwillingness to provide liberty and equality to black Americans.

Sojourns in the Caribbean and Returns to United States

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.


Born in Florence, Alabama on July 28
Goes to Nashville to receive a rudimentary education
Emigrates to Central America
Becomes a freelance journalist in Minnesota
Goes to Haiti in search of universal freedom
Goes to Kingston, Jamaica to study dentistry
Returns to the United States
Receives M.D. from Iowa State University in Keokuk
Serves as acting assistant surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Dies in Washington, D.C.

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.



Schweninger, Loren. James T. Rapier and Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.


Alexander, Philip. "John H. Rapier Jr. and the Medical Profession in Jamaica, 1861–1862." Jamaica Journal 24 (February 1993): 37-46.

――――――. "John H. Rapier Jr. and the Medical Profession in Jamaica, 1860–1862." Jamaica Journal 25 (October 1993): 55-62.

Schweninger, Loren. "A Slave Family in the Antebellum South." Journal of Negro History 60 (January 1975): 29-44.

――――――. "The Dilemma of a Free Negro in the Antebellum South." Journal of Negro History 62 (July 1977): 283-88.


Rapier's papers are in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, Washington. D.C.

                                Patricia A. Pearson