During Black History Month, many are the familiar names we are reminded of ― Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman.
But we are starting to include a few lesser-known names amongst those who deserve our remembrance for their struggles and triumphs like Marian Anderson, Sojourner Truth, and Anna Murray Douglass. Those of us who hail from Cecil might include another woman amongst this array of notable lights ― Sarah Collins Fernandis.
Born March 8, 1863, in Port Deposit to Caleb Alexander and Mary Jane (Driver) Collins, Sarah Collins arrived on this earth the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation. Like this progressive proclamation, she would go on to make a better way for people of color, especially women.
She founded the first black social settlement house in the United States in Washington D.C., after receiving her Master of Social Work degree from New York University. “Hers was a lifelong career of organizing social welfare and public health activities in the segregated black communities of the period,” records the National Association of Social Workers in a biography on Fernandis.
She graduated Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1882 and attended the New York School of Philanthropy in 1906, four years after she married John A. Fernandis on June 30, 1902. During a teacher career that spanned 19 years, she taught in public schools in Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. In Florida, she taught under the auspices of the Women’s Home Missionary Society of Boston, and then returned home to Maryland to teach in Baltimore.
Shortly after her marriage, she accepted the position of resident in the Colored Social Settlement of Washington D.C. and with her husband moved to 118 M Street, SW, a five-room building near an open sewer of the James Creek Canal, an area infamously known as Bloodfield. She acquired a second house in 1903 and established a public library branch. By 1904, she added a daycare center for infants, a kindergarten and afternoon classes in domestic training for girls, with a thrift fund for young boys. By 1905, she inaugurated “Baby Day,” an excursion down the Potomac River to Somerset Beach for 1,300 children and their others.
When she left Washington, she built a fund of $1,000 to erect a new building, created playgrounds for children and eliminated all blind alleys. She also secured housing with modern fixtures and reasonable rents in the neighborhood.
In 1908, she established another settlement house in East Greenwich, R.I., in another unsavory neighborhood known as Scalloptown. While there she wrote an article, “The Negro and Industrialism,” in which she called for more employment opportunities for blacks, and lectured at the school for social work operated near Simmons College and Harvard University.
Returning to Baltimore in 1913, the Women’s Civic League of Baltimore, a white organization, asked her to found a corresponding group of black women, the Cooperative Civic League. She organized the first branch with 35 members and became president of the organization that grew to include branches throughout the city. Together these leagues improved neighborhoods, brought in street cleaning and helped meet the nutritional needs of children by providing clean milk to the young.
She traveled from Pennsylvania to Vermont on a lecture circuit focusing on the plight of black female workers and conducted a study on increases in black residency in Chester, Pa., after World War I. By 1922, she was executive director of the Baltimore Organized Cooperative Civic League and the social investigator for Provident Hospital in Baltimore.
In addition to essays on social issues, Fernandis wrote thought-provoking poetry, publishing two volumes in 1925, Poems and Vision. Her poems are also often found in The Southern Workman, where she contributed work from 1891 to 1937. The January 1916 issue eulogizing Booker T. Washington, for example, includes her poem The Torch Bearer. The Troops of Carrizal is her tribute to black soldiers fighting in Mexico, and during WWI she wrote of the courage of black soldiers in Our Colored Soldiery. Another poem, Our Allegiance, extols black Americans for being patriotic in spite of the rampant discrimination they faced daily.
Her poem “Denial” was published in The Southern Workman in 1927 and is a reflection on her social work. In it she wrote, “Yet oftimes as I make the daily rounds, of crowded city byways I have found, shining up from the mark and slum of things, something so beautiful my spirit sings.”
Included in the publication Pioneers in Professionalism: Those Who Made a Significant Difference 1880-1930, she was recognized for being instrumental in organizing Henryton State Hospital as a sanitorium for African-American tuberculosis patients. She is also honored as the first black social worker employed by the Baltimore Health Department. Sarah Collins Fernandis also received national recognition for her long career of public service during her lifetime, when the Surgeon General of the United States invited her in March 1922 as one of 15 women to form a women’s advisory council to the US Public Health Service in Washington.
This amazing woman from Port Deposit who defied the eyes and paved the way for others died at age 88 on July 11, 1951 and is laid to rest in Baltimore. Her home state remembered her by the dedication of a room in the Druid Hill YMCA several years later and her inclusion in a book entitled Notable Maryland Women, though few are they who readily remember this tireless pioneer for women and the African American community.
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