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DR. BESS IN BRONZEVILLE
Over 500,000 Black Americans made their way from Southern states to Chicago during the Great Migration in search of more opportunities and less oppression. Bess Coleman, OD ’34, was one of them.
The first Black woman to register and work as an optometrist in the United States has a story that is shaped as much by her internal drive and ambitions as it was the roles and limitations placed on her as a Black woman in early 20th century America. The decade she spent in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, from 1925-1935, overlapped with the community’s cultural and economic heyday when it was known as the “Black Metropolis” to some and the “Black Belt” to others.
Bess Anderson Francis, known as Bessie to her family, was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky in August 1893, the eldest of six children in the Francis family. Harrodsburg was a railroad town with a population of close to 3,500 in the 1890s. Mr. Charles and Mrs. Emma Lucy Francis, Bess’ parents, were pillars of the community and owned a barbershop in town, a business that afforded them a degree of social and economic status with both its Black and white residents.
The Francis siblings attended the “West Side Colored School,” a public school a couple of blocks from the family home. It was described as a “two story shack” with an outhouse and was located directly behind the city dump. Mr. Francis may have been allowed to cut the hair of white men, but he could not live next door to them, nor could his children be educated in the same schools their white children attended.
Bess Coleman, OD '34, class composite photo from the Northern Illinois College of Optometry (NICO) .
“She watched the optometrist and she said, ‘I can do this,’ so he [Mr. Coleman] sent her to Northern Illinois College of Optometry (NICO).”
Each of the Francis children would go on to earn degrees, which was typical among their social circles. Mr. and Mrs. Francis emphasized the importance of knowledge, education, and professional achievements for their children. Bess would become a teacher at her West Side alma mater at the age of 18 and work there for over a decade.
For young Bess, going to school to become a teacher would have been an affirmative step in building the kind of life her family expected of her. Helping professions like teaching, healthcare, or social work were all acceptable for educated young women. As a Black woman, having a teaching position allowed Bess to become a leader within the Black community and maintain her status of respectability within the white community.
Bess’ time as an educator came to an end with her marriage to Mr. John Coleman in 1923. Mr. Coleman had also grown up in Harrodsburg with a similar family background and had done some traveling and studying outside Kentucky. He was intent on becoming a business owner after earning his pharmacy license in 1922. The couple moved to West Palm Beach, Florida and lived there for two years while Mr. Coleman learned the trade from a mentor.
The couple arrived in Chicago in 1925, settling in Bronzeville. Mr. Coleman would go on to own and operate three pharmacies in the community. Bess, now Mrs. Coleman, experienced two miscarriages before giving birth to her only child, a son, John, Jr., in 1927. Like many women of her era, Mrs. Coleman did not work outside the home during her early years of motherhood, though Mr. and Mrs. Coleman each had hopes and ambitions to achieve economic success and professional advancement as individuals.
The Bronzeville that existed when the Colemans moved there was nationally recognized as a thriving Black cultural and economic hub, akin to New York City’s Harlem. Given Chicago’s racially restrictive covenants used between 1916-1948, it was also one of the very few places Black people could live in the city. Black leaders in every field called it home because they had to, given the laws that codified segregation. If you were accomplished like Jesse Owens or Ida B. Wells or Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, you were still required to live within the boundaries of Bronzeville, as were the Colemans and others in Chicago’s Black professional class.
Natalie Moore, author of The South Side and a reporter at Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ, gives added context, “This was during the first wave of the Great Migration and not too long after the 1919 race riots in Chicago. There was an influx of migrants that were confined to the Black Belt. The community was tight knit, but bursting at the seams with overcrowding. There is a tendency to romanticize Bronzeville because it had Black owned businesses and a vibrant cultural scene, but its residents faced discrimination and were treated as second class citizens.”
One of the apartments where the Colemans lived during their time in Bronzeville was a massive housing development of over 400 units surrounding a lush interior green courtyard called the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments. The structure was built by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in 1929, then president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, who had an ongoing interest in funding housing and education initiatives for Black communities in the urban North and rural South.
Bess Coleman's, OD '34, class photo from Northern Illinois College of Optometry. Dr. Bess is seated in the first row fifth from the left.
This illustration of NICO is taken from NICO's 1934 yearbook. The top photo shows the work that was being done in the early 1930s. This led to a 5000 sq ft expansion of the NICO's facilities.
The apartments were intended to provide affordable housing for working-class Black people migrating from the South. John Coleman, Jr. described their building in a 1986 oral history as, “. . . a block square with a garden inside. It was supposed to have been for underprivileged Blacks, but it was such a nice building that the professional people moved in.” It was while living here that the Colemans began to prosper financially. In 1930, Mrs. Coleman traveled back home to Harrodsburg for the opening celebration of a new high school for Black students that Mr. Rosenwald had also financed and built.
During this time, Mrs. Coleman expressed interest in pursuing a law degree, but Mr. Coleman objected. It is not documented why, but the law’s loss would become optometry’s gain. With John, Jr. preparing to start school, Mrs. Coleman was looking for something to engage herself professionally and intellectually that her husband would support. One day, while accompanying her husband to an eye exam, John Jr. recounted that “She watched the optometrist and she said, ‘I can do this,’ so he [Mr. Coleman] sent her to Northern Illinois College of Optometry (NICO).”
The Rosenwald Apartments where Dr. Coleman and her husband lived. This massive structure covers a full city block at 4648 S. Michigan Avenue. Notable residents included Nat “King” Cole, writer Lorraine Hansberry, actress Marla Gibbs, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones among others.
NICO would later merge with the Chicago College of Optometry in 1955 to become the Illinois College of Optometry (ICO), but in the fall of 1932 it was under the leadership of Dr. William B. Needles and located further east than today’s campus. At the age of 39, Mrs. Bess Coleman became the first female Black student at NICO. The color barrier had been broken several years earlier, but not for women. Mrs. Bess Coleman was a pioneer.
NICO boasted of having a state-of-the-art facility with 12,000 square feet of teaching space, a surgical theater, a clinic with twenty exam rooms, an onsite lab, an auditorium, and gymnasium. In 1932, it took two years to become a registered optometrist with a 2,000-hour curriculum and then successfully passing the State boards after a year of clinical practice. Tuition came in at a cool $225.00 annually.
The YMCA located at 3763 S. Wabash. This is where the origins of Black History Month took root.
There is a tendency to romanticize Bronzeville because it had Black owned businesses and a vibrant cultural scene, but its residents faced discrimination and were treated as second class citizens.”
Natalie Moore, author of The South Side
On June 9, 1934, a Bronzeville newspaper, The Chicago Defender, ran an announcement about Mrs. Coleman’s achievement accompanied by her photo, “Wife of John B. Coleman, well known Chicago druggist, who received her degree from the Northern Illinois College of Optometry on June 1. Mrs. Coleman is the first woman of the Race to be graduated from this college.” At the time, Mrs. Coleman was a 40-year-old wife and mother to her young son, about to embark on her new career in optometry.
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas, a Chicago urban historian and owner of Chicago Mahogany Tours, sheds light on the role of the newspaper to the Black community, both in Chicago and around the nation, “The proximity to greatness was amazing in Bronzeville. Because 80% of Chicago’s Black residents lived there, including the editors and reporters of The Defender, they covered everybody, from high society to local number runners visiting Paris. African Americans needed to see themselves and their stories served as inspiration across the country.”
The newspaper played a crucial role in the Great Migration. While it was one of a few nationally distributed papers with a Black readership, including The Chicago Bee, also produced and printed in Bronzeville, The Chicago Defender published a string of ongoing articles urging and encouraging its Southern Black readers to move north to Chicago to secure a better life for themselves. The newspaper utilized a distribution system of Pullman porters, Black railroad attendants, who would leave bundles of the papers in beauty and barbershops across the American South, after smuggling them on various train routes out of Chicago.
The storied home of The Chicago Defender, the leading nationally distributed newspaper read by Black Americans. This building was located just down the street from the pharmacy owned by Dr. Coleman’s husband where she practiced optometry the year after her graduation. This is located at 3435 S. Indiana Avenue.
The 1934 Census Tract of Chicago showing where African Americans were allowed to live. This tract of land was often referred to as the "Black Belt". Bronzeville, one of the most densely populated areas of the city, was referred to as the "Black Metropolis".
After graduating, Dr. Coleman began her optometry practice in the Indiana Avenue location of her husband’s pharmacy, just a few doors down from The Chicago Defender’s offices. Dr. Coleman worked long enough to secure her practice hours, enabling her to sit for the Illinois board exam. Another notice in the paper was posted in May 1935 that declared Dr. Coleman, “the only Race woman registered optometrist in the United States,” after she passed the exam with high marks.
Soon after, the now Dr. Coleman and her young son left Bronzeville and returned to Kentucky, this time to Lexington. It is unclear exactly why Dr. Coleman made the move, but it could be attributed to a number of factors including John, Jr.’s asthma, the growing caregiving needs of her aging mother and father-in-law, or a combination of the lack of Black healthcare providers in the South because of Jim Crow laws. Chicago had a disproportionate number of Black optometrists in the mid-1930s, given the presence of two well regarded schools of optometry located there and in Lexington, Dr. Coleman was the sole Black optometrist practicing within the city limits.
Back in Bronzeville, The Chicago Defender continued to cover Dr. Coleman’s professional life as an optometrist and her achievements in Lexington. Announcements in the newspaper ran about the opening of her private practice in the fall of 1938, a variety of lectures Dr. Coleman gave promoting her practice and the importance of children’s vision care, and her 1941 retirement from optometry due to ill health.
Dr. Coleman would never practice optometry again. After a short stint in Arizona to take advantage of the arid climate for John, Jr.’s asthma, Dr. Coleman and her son settled in the historic Black section of Denver, Colorado known as the Whittier neighborhood. Mr. Coleman would join them in 1949 after selling his Bronzeville pharmacies.
Dr. Bess Coleman pioneered what it meant to be a Black woman professional in the field of optometry. She lived the path of the Great Migration, she encapsulated the shifting, but still limited opportunities available to Black Americans under Jim Crow, all while being a daughter, wife, mother, caregiver, and business owner, with all the inherent and mundane, often invisible, responsibilities associated with those roles.
In ICO’s ‘Seeing is Believing’ video interview series produced in 2021, student and president of the Black Student Union, Alexis Abernathy, OD ’23 from St. Louis, Missouri was interviewed about being a Black optometry student, “When I first arrived [at ICO], I struggled heavily with imposter syndrome. I thought I did not belong here. I didn’t have any Black mentors. There was a commercial online and it said, ‘If you see her, you can be her.’ That has been my motto since starting ICO. If you see someone who looks like you, it makes you feel like you belong in that space, too. My goal after leaving ICO is to become that for future students.”
Bess Coleman, OD ’34, belonged in the spaces she inhabited at optometry school and in Chicago and in Kentucky. She continues to inspire. Her story and legacy matter more than she could have understood walking into that Bronzeville classroom as the first Black woman optometry student. “If you see her, you can be her.” We see you, Dr. Coleman.