Tom Eblen: Lexington physician was an activist far ahead of her time

In 1902, she became the first black woman in Lexington to be a licensed physician.

Britton treated patients in her small home at 545 North Limestone. Her specialties included hydrotherapy and electrotherapy — the use of water and electricity to treat illnesses and disease.

It is hard to imagine now just what a pioneer Britton was for her time. Thomas Tolliver lives in a house on East Third Street that once belonged to T.T. Wendell, another early black physician. Tolliver found an old photograph in the attic from a 1910 meeting of the Medical Society of Negro Physicians. The photograph shows Britton on the front row, surrounded by men.

Despite a busy medical practice, Britton remained active in civil rights and the growing women’s rights movement. “You talk about a civil rights advocate,” Smith said. “Here was a woman in the late 19th century who was really going at it.”

Britton was one of 15 black women in Lexington who founded the Colored Orphan Industrial Home on Georgetown Street. The century-old building now houses the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center and the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum. Britton died in 1925 at age 70 and is buried in Cove Haven Cemetery.

Two of her siblings also achieved fame in their time. Brother Tom Britton (1870-1901) was a successful jockey who won the 1891 Kentucky Oaks aboard Miss Hawkins and came within six inches of winning the 1892 Kentucky Derby on Huron. His health and fortunes declined after a bad racing accident, and he eventually killed himself.

Sister Julia Britton Hooks (1852-1942) also attended Berea and became the college’s first black faculty member, teaching instrumental music. She moved to Memphis, married Charles Hooks and opened a music school. Among her students was the blues legend W.C. Handy.

Like her sister, Hooks was politically active, becoming a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Her grandson’s name might be familiar: Benjamin Hooks was executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992.