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First Indianna licensed black physician is honored

Finally receives proper headstone

Samuel Elbert was well into his 20s when he learned to read and write. But less than 20 years later — in 1871 — he received his medical license and opened an office in Downtown Indianapolis.
 
Tuesday, about 30 members of the city’s medical community gathered at Elbert’s grave at Crown Hill Cemetery to honor the first licensed African-American physician in Indiana.
 
“He had many things going against him,” said George Rawls, former president of the Indianapolis Medical Society, who wrote the foreword of Elbert’s biography. “He wanted to become a physician, and he did. He practiced what he wanted to.”
 
Elbert was born to freed slaves on April 9, 1832, in Maryland and worked as a field hand at age 9 when his father died. By the time he was 25, he had moved to Ohio and went to school in Lee Township. In 1863, he began studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, then moved to Indianapolis three years later.
 
He taught for two years at a school operated by Allan Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, according to the Indianapolis Medical Society Foundation.
 
It was while working as a teacher that he discovered his interest in medicine and decided to become a physician. But during that time, according to the society, medical schools did not accept him because of his race.
 
With the help of mentors, he eventually enrolled “under sufferance” at the Medical College of Indiana, where he was allowed to attend classes only if he worked for the school, according to the society. 
 
Later, the school declined to award him his medical degree — a decision that Elbert challenged and won in court.
 
“He was a very industrious man,” said Rick France, vice president of the Genealogical Society of Marion County, who discovered Elbert’s grave and eventually wrote his biography. “He overcame a lot of obstacles, partly because of his race, but also because of other circumstances that faced him. He persevered and throughout all that, he accomplished a great deal. He broke the color barrier in Indiana and rose to prominence."
 
France, who discovered Elbert’s grave, thought it deserved to have a headstone.
 
The headstone was placed in October, and a dedication ceremony was on Tuesday.
 
Elbert practiced medicine for 30 years. Part of that time was with his son, James Elbert, who died in 1894. He maintained his practice until 1901. He died a year later and was buried in Section 20, Lot 7, at Crown Hill Cemetery.
 
“He set a goal,” Rawls said. “He did not give up.”
 
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