Optometry at the Intersection of Gender, Race and Class in the Early Twentieth Century The Exemplary Life of Bess Coleman, O.D.

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Kirsten L. Hebert, B.A.


This biographical study of Dr. Bess Francis Coleman profiles the experience of an African American woman in  the early twentieth century, employing a critical lens to explore how race, gender and class shaped her life and career, and the methodology of microhistory to draw out the ways in which her life exemplifies and signifies the essential work of African American women professionals during this era. Dr. Bess “Bessie” Anderson Francis Coleman (1893-1967) was the first documented African American woman licensed to practice optometry in the United States. A native of Kentucky, Dr. Coleman’s first career was as a schoolteacher in her native Harrodsburg. In 1923, she married pharmacist John B. Coleman, Jr. The Colemans moved to West Palm Beach, Florida in 1923, and then Chicago, Illinois in 1925 where they opened a chain of pharmacies in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Dr. Coleman received her training at the Northern Illinois College of Optometry from 1932-1934. In 1935, she moved back to Kentucky with her son, where she cared for her elderly parents and opened the only optometry practice in Lexington’s Brucetown neighborhood, well-known for its African American physicians. In 1942, she retired to Denver, Colorado’s African American enclave, Whittier. She died in 1967 and was buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery in her hometown.


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How to Cite
Hebert, K. L. (2020). Optometry at the Intersection of Gender, Race and Class in the Early Twentieth Century: The Exemplary Life of Bess Coleman, O.D. Hindsight: Journal of Optometry History, 51(2), 37–50. https://doi.org/10.14434/hindsight.v51i2.30279
Author Biography

Kirsten L. Hebert, B.A., Optometry Cares - The AOA Foundation

Kirsten Hebert is the Heritage Services Specialist for Optometry Cares - The AOA Foundation. She manages the collections held in the Archives & Museum of Optometry, is a contributing editor to and manages the Hindsight: Journal of Optometry History.