Q: Washington was a very segregated place back at the turn of the century. Did you come into contact with white people very much?
A: Yes, because there were no black Catholic churches and I was very Catholic. Our neighborhood church was Holy Name. Of course, you sat on the last pews in the church. I remember one time seeing a cripple -- a crippled woman was in the third pew from the back and the church had a special service and the white people were standing at the back. They made all the black people get up out of their pews and stand in the back and put white people in the pews. They had segregation in the church and everything.
Q: And on the buses.
A: Yes. But I was one of these people who -- as my mother said, stand tall and look 'em square in the eye. You don't fight. You don't argue. You don't act mean. You show them dignity.
Q: After you finished your medical education you married and moved to Jersey City. Did you start off in (obstetrics-gynecology)?
A: In 1931 Jersey City decided to build a maternity hospital. I had a very large obstetrical practice -- home deliveries. A patient only went to the hospital with complications. As have a way of saying, the Lord knew how to put that baby, and He also knew how to get it out. If we encouraged the patient and helped them, added security, most women can have their babies at home.
Q: Natural childbirth.
A: I was in 36 hours of hard labor with my first child. I knew what I was talking about when I talk about natural childbirth and prolonged labor. I was put on the staff at the hospital when it opened in 1931. So the doctors got to know me. I was like a guinea pig. I could only do my normal deliveries and take care of my patients. I've always had three (strikes) against me: black, woman, Catholic. At that time the second one was a big handicap. They didn't even want women in, so I had to have a consultant for everything that had to be done.
I'll never forget the night I came home crying because I had a patient I thought we should do something for. My consultant was entirely opposed to what I thought was right. So, I made up my mind that I was going to be certified by the boards so that I could be my own boss. I went to the chief. Everybody liked me, I was one of those silly people who loves people. But they just didn't want me to be a resident.
Q: So you were over 30 years old and you still hadn't done your residency?
A: No. I applied for residency back and forth for five years and always the answer was no. In the meantime, I had a couple more children. Dr. (Samuel) Cosgrove (chief of the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City) was a wonderful man and he thought the world and all of me. He had gotten the brotherhood award, which was a big affair at the YMCA. The next morning I went into his office, and said, "Dr. Cosgrove you got the brotherhood award. Now I want you to take right care of this sisterhood. I want a residency." His secretary said to him, "Dr. Cosgrove, she is one of the best doctors in the hospital. She treats her patients so nice. Why don't you let her have one." He said, "Well, with the two of you against me, I guess I'll have to let you go. When do you want to start?"
At the end of 18 months I asked them to certify me for my boards. I took my boards and became possibly the first black woman, although there may have been one earlier, to be certified as the obstetrician/gynecologist.
Q: In the country?
A: Yes. They told me to come to a hotel in Washington, one of the biggest at the time, to do my orals. When you take boards you have to do a written, a case report and orals. I went down there with my credentials and they wouldn't let me in the door because I was black! They told me I had to go to the tradesmen's entrance.
Q: What did you say?
A: My mother told me that (when) somebody does that to you, stand tall and I just stood there at the door until somebody went in and then I walked in with them. They looked at me but they didn't throw me out.
I passed. So much so that there was a fellow who went down the next day, when he came back, he said to me, "What on earth did you do down there? Everybody's talking about how you just walked through the thing (the orals) like it was nothin'" I said, "Well, that's how I do everything."
In a year or two, I went to the doctor who had to endorse you for the International College of Surgeons. I said Dr. So-and-So, I passed my boards, I'm certified and you know I'm one of the damn best doctors in this town. I wanted to become a member of the International College of Surgeons, because I felt too many women got cut up for nothing. He looked at me and laughed and he said, "If you tell it like that I guess it's okay." You betcha it's okay. I was either the first or second black.
Q: In the '20s and '30s when you first started practicing in Jersey City there weren't that many blacks living in the town or in the city. Were most of your patients white?
A: Definitely. Three-fourths of my patients were white. Some of the few well-known blacks wouldn't even trust me.
Q: Why was that?
A: It has been my curse ever since I've been a doctor. It's hard to find your (own) people that will really come to you. I was there and if anybody came, I was certainly happy to take care of them.
Q: Your father was a dentist?
A: My father was a self-made man. He worked -- I'm not sure just what he did, maybe he shined shoes -- to get to Howard University to get a teacher's certificate. By the time he came out, he had married and teachers didn't make enough money to support a family. So he got a job working in the post office and went to dental school at the same time.
When he finished dental school I was 7 years old I think, something like 1907. He set up a practice in the house. His office was on the first floor and my brothers and I used to sit on the steps and listen if patients would holler when he pulled a tooth. All of a sudden you would hear the patient say, "Dr. Edwards, is that my tooth?" And my father would be busy talking about baseball to men and children to the women. My brothers would say he gave his patients hot-air anesthesia.
My two brothers became dentists like my father. One practiced with my father but he became ill and died when he was 36 years old. My father died a few months later from something called now an occupational disease.
Q: What was that?
A: When I went to Washington to have him fix my teeth one time, I noticed he used to sit down between patients and his gait had changed. This was back in the early '30s. I took him to New York to the neurological institute. I'll never forget it, a lady doctor made the diagnosis. Dentists used to mix the alloy or the silver fills in the hand. And he had chronic mercury poisoning which caused him to have Parkinson's syndrome.
Q: What did your father think of his daughter becoming a doctor?
A: He encouraged me. My parents told us we can do anything we want to do. But you have to do it better than anybody else, was the next thing he said. So I was a very smart student in school.
Q: You were in Dunbar?
A: I graduated from Dunbar High School in 1918. In those days it was the custom of the nice white people to give the outstanding young woman and outstanding young man from Dunbar High School -- at that time one of the best college preparatory high schools in the country -- a free ride to any Ivy League school that they wanted to go to.
Q: You were the valedictorian of your class, right?
A: I was. Those dear sisters were disgusted because this little so-in-so said to them, "I don't want you to send me to school and have me go up there to those Ivy League schools and come back looking down on my people because you brainwashed me." I turned down Radcliffe and Wellesley. They were so disgusted they pleaded with me up to the last minute. "Won't you change your mind?" "No," I said. "I'm going to Howard University. God made me black and I'm not ashamed of it."
It makes me more and ever determined to prove that we can do anything that anybody else can do and do it better. So I went to Howard University, and I finished in two years and three summers. I finished medical school in 1924.
Q: So you must not have had much of a social life?
A: Our social life was your family's friends and children. We had families that knew each other and their children were friends. Our house was always open to having parties and what not. We didn't go out in those days, we went from one house to another. And of course, there were church activities, but it wasn't this business of going here and there and spending money like it is now.
I married the day after I got my degree because I wanted my name to be the same as my father's so I've always been Dr. Edwards. To immortalize the background. That's crazy, but that's the way I am. I married a classmate.
Q: So you were known as Dr. Edwards and your husband was known as Dr. Madison. How did you combine having a career and a family at the same time? That must have been very difficult, when nobody else was doing it.
A: It wasn't and I'll tell you why. I've loved children all my life. And my children were no mistakes. I wanted a large family. In those days, one of the best jobs (a woman) could get was babysitting for a woman like me. I had no difficulty in finding some very lovely people who would live in when the children were very little. Then, as they got a little older, they would just come in and help. My children and I grew up doing everything with each other. Everything. When my Edward was just a little fellow -- he couldn't have been more than 2 -- I spanked him for something. He stared at me and screamed and cried and I will never forget that look. As if I had done something to torture him. I said, my Godalmighty, I've done something wrong, and I'm supposed to be an expert in child training. I've got to go over to New York and find out what I didn't do. So I went to one of the famous schools where they taught parenting. And I'll never forget the three things they taught us. Never hit a child. It makes them rebellious. Never tell the child a story.
Q: A lie?
A: A lie. And always keep your promises. Or apologize if something happens so that you can't keep your promise. By the time the older children were in their very early teens I didn't need a babysitter because each one took care of the other one. The family was put together with good times.
Q: What do you think was your greatest accomplishment in your life?
A: Aside from my six beautiful and wonderful children, my missionary work in Texas. I was 60. I had gone back to Howard University in 1954 to teach and I taught there for six years like my dad. (I thought) if I want to do something for poor people I better quit teaching because I'm getting old. So I contacted St Joseph's Mission in Texas and took a visit there and I came home and cried. To think that human beings -- mostly Mexican Americans, a few blacks, a few white tramps -- were there living with dirt floors. Some of the walls of those buildings were like big cardboard boxes. No electricity. So when I thought of all the terrible conditions under which those people lived I arranged to go and stay. They put a cot in the furnished room for me which didn't bother me one bit. I had gone down there with me and myself and my ideas. I said to the people, "We're going to have a board of directors." They said, "What? We can't be board directors. Most of us haven't had a grammar school education." I said, "My belief (is) that a person can be anything that he's given an opportunity to be. And I do not believe in welfare systems. I don't believe in people throwing their odds and ends and trash to poor people and calling them no-'count bums. I believe you can teach and train and help people to become independent and reliable. And this is what we're going to do here and you're going to be my board of directors."
These were Mexican-American migrant workers. Some of them hardly spoke English. But fortunately, I had studied three languages in high school -- French, German and Spanish. I could communicate with them very well. That's how we got the hospital started. We wound up with a 10-bed maternity building which I kept separate from where they had been treating sick people. It became something to me that was an idea and a dream -- a combination of talents and people and love constructing something that was necessary. I was very proud of that place.