Rachael (Tharps) Boone of Virginia died of Tuberculosis in 1938. She and her husband, Dr. Clinton Caldwell Boone, had devoted their lives to being reverends and Baptist medical missionaries. The …
Rachael (Tharps) Boone of Virginia died of Tuberculosis in 1938. She and her husband, Dr. Clinton Caldwell Boone, had devoted their lives to being reverends and Baptist medical missionaries. The couple had been stationed in Monrovia, Liberia when their daughter Rachel Hannah Celestine Boone was born in 1924. There, they founed a church, maintained a school and provided necessary medical care to the inhabitants of the area. As a 13-year-old watching her mother die painfully from the disease that had invaded her body, Rachel decided that she would follow in her father's footsteps and become a physician.
After attending Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary School, a grammar school for African-American children, Rachel became a student at Armstrong High School in Virginia, which had originally been called the Colored High & Normal School. Her intelligence had her instructors in awe as her level of knowledge quickly surpassed her peers. The same year her mother died, Rachel graduated from high school at the age of 13, having earned the status of class valedictorian.
Unfortunately, the Boone family had more tragedy in store. Prior to Rachel’s mother’s untimely death, her father’s first wife, Eva, had died in the Congo where she and Clinton were working as missionaries, after suffering a venomous bite. Now, in her 15th year, Rachel learned that her father had drowned in the James River. The young girl was sent to live with her mother's sister, Dr. Bessie B. Tharps, in Cranston. Fifty-three-year-old Bessie, who had received her medical degree from Boston University in 1916, had moved from her native state of Virginia to RI after becoming divorced. For several decades, she resided in the home of Mary A. Tefft, at 221 Oaklawn Avenue, and worked as a private physician.
Rachel went on to attend Houghton College in New York, graduating second in her class. She returned to RI to complete her post-graduate studies at Brown University then went on to obtain her medical degree from Boston University's School of Medicine in 1949. The score she earned on her final medical exam was the highest score ever obtained by a medical school student in America.
Rachel completed an internship at Harlem Hospital and was then employed by Coney Island Hospital before relocating to Detroit in 1951. That year she began a two-year residency in internal medicine at Detroit Receiving Hospital. In 1954, she joined the staff of Detroit Memorial Hospital and went on to enter into a private practice which continued for five decades.
On Oct. 18, 1953, in Virginia, Rachel married attorney Damon Jerome Keith, who went on to become a judge of the United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and one of the nation’s longest serving federal judges. Rachel died in Michigan on Jan. 4, 2007 and was buried in Roseland Park Cemetery in Michigan. As a tribute to all she stood for and everything she accomplished, her family established a permanently endowed fund at the Boston University School of Medicine – The Rachel Boone Keith Prize Fund. The fund helps to financially support African-American females attending school there.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.