The first female African American physician in Fairfield County, Dr. Joyce Yerwood devoted her 50-year career to providing quality medical care for low-income women, children, and families. She was a tireless advocate for social justice and equality who impacted thousands of lives over her lifetime of civic engagement including founding the Yerwood Center, the first community center for African Americans in Stamford.
Ursula Joyce Yerwood was born on January 5, 1909, in Victoria, Tex., the younger of two daughters. Her mother, Melissa Brown Yerwood, was a schoolteacher who died soon after Joyce’s birth. Her father, Charles Yerwood, was one of fewer than 20 African American physicians in the entire state of Texas. Raising his two daughters largely on his own, Dr. Charles Yerwood brought Joyce and her sister Connie along as he made house calls and treated patients. This early exposure to the medical profession inspired both sisters to pursue careers in medicine. They were also inspired by their grandfather’s Civil War stories from his time as both a slave and a solider. As Joyce wrote late in her life, “As a former slave boy, he was proud of his educated girls and boys. In his way, he influenced us—our pride, our desires to try and go a step further.”
Wishing his daughters to become proper young ladies, Dr. Charles Yerwood encouraged them to take classes in music and art and enrolled them as teenagers in the Eliza Dee Home, a finishing school for African American girls. Both girls were incredibly bright and sought to follow in their father’s footsteps into the medical field. After high school, Joyce enrolled at Samuel Huston College in Austin, Tex., where she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1928. She then set off for Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. (her father’s alma mater) with her sister. The Yerwood sisters were the only two female students in their first year program. Before classes had even begun, the school encouraged them to enroll as dental students rather than as medical students, seeing dentistry as a more appropriate course of study for young women.
Dr. Joyce Yerwood graduated with honors in 1933 and went on to complete her internship in Kansas City, Kan., and her residency in Philadelphia, Penn. Throughout this time, Dr. Yerwood made a name for herself as a pioneer in public health. At the time, women only accounted for about 5% of doctors nationwide—and African American women were just a tiny fraction of that already small group.
In 1936, she married Dr. Joseph Carwin, a fellow physician, and the couple moved to Stamford, Conn. Dr. Yerwood was a housewife for a short time but, after about a year, decided to open her own medical practice and chose Port Chester, N.Y. After 18 years of serving the underserved through her practice, she moved her office to Stamford, Conn., becoming the first female African American physician in Fairfield County. But her influence in the Stamford community extended well beyond her medical practice.
In addition to delivering more than 2,000 babies, Dr. Yerwood devoted herself to the promotion of educational and cultural opportunities for African American youth in her community. Her father’s insistence on art and music education became useful as she founded the Little Negro Theater, a performing arts group that she founded in 1939. As the group grew, Dr. Yerwood raised funds to purchase a storefront on West Main Street in Stamford. In 1943, the location was transformed into the Stamford Negro Community Center, which moved to its current location in 1975 when it was renamed the Yerwood Center in her honor.
Incredibly civic-minded and tremendously passionate for the people of her community, Dr. Yerwood was a much sought-after Board member for various organizations in the greater Stamford area. She served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Union Baptist Church and was an active member of the Eastern Star, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Girl Friends, Inc., the Soroptimists Club, the Stamford Medical Society, the National Medical Association, the Stamford Hospital Corporation, and the World Medical Association. She and her husband were also instrumental in founding the Greenwich Chapter of the NAACP. Dr. Yerwood received many community service awards and honors in her lifetime including the Stamford Mayor’s Award, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Heritage Award, and the Hannah G. Solomon Award.
She maintained her medical practice until 1981, but even after her retirement continued to blaze new trails through her service as Medical Director of the Methadone Clinic of Stamford’s Liberation Program and through her continued support of the Yerwood Center. Dr. Joyce Yerwood passed away in 1987 in her Old Greenwich home.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.