Don’t be surprised to one day see another Great Barrington native featured on a U.S. Black Heritage postage stamp.
Three Manhattan women this month paid a visit to town: Dolores Leito and Michelle Deal Winfield, co-chairs, and Christine Merritt, historian, all members of the Committee to Honor May Edward Chinn, Physician. Frances Jones-Sneed and I met with them to learn more about their efforts to instigate a commemorative stamp featuring Dr. Chinn.
Chinn was included in “African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley,” for which Frances was associate editor and I was a contributing editor in 2006. We knew she was born in Great Barrington.
In anticipation of the meeting, I did some further digging into the story of the house ln Church Street in which Chinn was born. This part of the village between Main Street and the Housatonic River was gradually improved by George R. Ives, who in 1882 laid out Bridge Street, River Street and Church Street, dividing the land into building lots.
Maria Van Ness (1799-1872), a Black woman who worked as a domestic for Sarah, Mary and Nancy Kellogg at Rose Cottage on South Main Street, owned a building lot on Church Street. She was a sister of Othello Burghardt, W.E.B. Du Bois’ grandfather.
She sold the land to Thomas Jefferson McKinley (circa 1784-1896). “Old Jeff” had fled New Orleans during the Civil War, following Massachusetts 49th troops back to Massachusetts. Gardening and peddling produce door to door, he scratched out a living. He had two children in the South but here married Margaret Cooley. He had two dwellings built, living in one and renting the other. In 1868, McKinley rented the second house to recently married Alfred and Mary Burghardt Du Bois. Their son William Edward (1868-1963) was born there.
McKinley sold half of his property to William L. Chinn in 1895. He was still living there, in the care of the Chinns, when he died.
William Lafayette Chinn (1852-1936) was born in Brentsville, Va., and at the age of 11 escaped slavery from the Cheyne (Chinn) plantation in Lancaster, Pa. William was the son of Benjamin Tasker Chinn (1807-1886), white plantation owner, and likely Susan Spencer, an enslaved Black woman. William Chinn made his way to Great Barrington, his daughter May Edward Chinn recalled, and worked at odd jobs.
Chinn married Martha E. Gunn (1849-1937), with whom five children were born. She was one of the Stockbridge Gunn family, members of which still live in the Berkshires. The Chinns divorced and he married Lulu Ann Evans (1876-1942) and acquired the Church Street property. Lulu Chinn was the daughter of a Black slave named Evans and a Chickahominy Native American woman. This Chinn union produced a daughter, May Edward Chinn (1896-1980).
The Black population of Great Barrington created its own community through the African Methodist Episcopal Society, which met regularly at members’ homes until building its own Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in 1887. William Chinn belonged, and likely his daughter was baptized here.
The family moved to New York City in 1899. May Edward Chinn said her underemployed father took to drink and was quarrelsome. The parents split though kept in contact.
May’s groundbreaking path
May entered Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in 1917 to study music. She worked as a technician in a pathology lab to earn money toward her tuition. She became a piano accompanist to Paul Robeson. Changing course, she took the exam for Bellevue Hospital Medical School and earned certification in 1921.
She interned at Harlem Hospital and was the first woman to ride with the ambulance crew on emergency calls. Chinn opened a private family practice and worked with other Black physicians associated with Edgecombe Sanitarium. To overcome a color barrier in cancer research, she went with her patients to city hospital clinics to observe biopsy techniques.
She studied for a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University in 1933 and investigated cytological methods for detecting cancer with Pap smear test-developer Dr. George Papanicolaou from 1928 to 1933. She eventually earned admitting privileges at Harlem Hospital. In 1944, she was invited to take a position at Strang Cancer Clinic until she retired in 1974.
She became a member of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1954 and three years later the New York City Cancer Committee of the American Cancer Society gave her a citation. Columbia University in 1980 awarded her an honorary doctorate of science for her contributions to medicine. For these reasons and more, the visitors from Manhattan champion a stamp for Chinn.
What came of the McKinley houses?
Chinn sold his property in 1898 to Stanley Instrument Co., which wanted it for an industrial site. In 1898, McKinley’s heirs sold the rental house to Alfred and Lulu Williams, and that property too was razed. The two McKinley dwellings appear on a 1903 Sanborn insurance map and a 1904 Berkshire County atlas map, but they don’t survive much longer.
The Great Barrington Historical Society sign in front of the empty lot acknowledges the Du Bois connection but not Chinn. A young reader biography of the doctor, “May Chinn: The Best Medicine” by Ellen R. Butts & Joyce R. Schwartz, was published by W.H. Freeman & Co. in 1995.