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Dr. Josephine English, medical trailblazer, dies at 91

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 12/28/2011, 5:27 p.m.

When medical pioneer Dr. Josephine English, the first African-American woman to have an OB/GYN practice in the state of New York, was in financial difficulties with her Adelphi Medical Clinic in 1995, she told her creditors that her life's work for the mothers of Fort Greene ought to count for something in the equation.

Indeed. Her life was of inestimable value to thousands of New Yorkers during her remarkable, diversified career, which ended Dec. 18, a day after her 91st birthday at the Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Brooklyn.

If it were just for her medical practice alone, English would be a profound history maker, ushering into this world such notables as all of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz's daughters and the esteemed playwright Lynn Nottage.

But she also earned a glowing reputation as an entrepreneur, real estate agent and patron of the arts, having founded the Paul Robeson Theater in Brooklyn.

Woodie King Jr., chairman of the Coalition of Theatres of Color and founder and director of New Federal Theatre, said, "Dr. English will be sorely missed. She was an original and staunch member of CTC and was on the frontline in creating and promoting quality Black theatrical productions.

"When CTC was founded, we looked for members who were Black theater advocates and had political clout," King said. "Involving Dr. English was a priority. Dr. English understood that the survival of community Black theaters is in crisis-not only in New York City, but across America."

During several interviews, most notably with Our Time Press, English expounded on her love of the theater. "Our children need to attend the theater, because when they get older they will know there are some things other than the movies," she said. "Theater is a meaningful experience."

Currently, Paul Robeson Theater is undergoing a major renovation campaign. English said, "We put out good theatrical productions. And the people support us."

And she unstintingly supported her people.

Born in Ontario, Va., English came of age in Englewood, N.J. In 1939, she earned her B.A. at Hunter College and her M.A in psychology from New York University. She was a graduate of Meharry Medical College in 1949, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.

Before becoming the first woman to open a private practice in the state, she spent seven years at Harlem Hospital.

Two years after moving to Brooklyn in 1956, she founded a women's community health clinic in Bushwick. Subsequently, she founded a similar clinic in Fort Greene in the 1980s. A tireless advocate for health care, she went on to establish the Adelphi Medical Center and After School Program, as well as a summer youth camp. In 1982, she purchased a church in need of great repair, renovated it and converted it into the Paul Robeson Theater.

"I extend my deepest sympathy and heartfelt condolences to the English family for the loss their matriarch and a great woman," Councilwoman Letitia James, of Fort Greene, said in a press release.

According to Our Time Press, English often urged her patients to get involved with community health issues and even had players create fun performances for families in her Brooklyn neighborhood, delivering messages about health and nutrition. Michael Anthony Sheppard, one of her four sons, said English "loved people-real people-and she did what she could to create opportunities so that people could uplift themselves. She was an icon in Brooklyn history and was concerned that young people were not being taught about the contributions of the great people around them, whose shoulders they stand on."

English's daughter, Sharon Sheppard, said her mother's passing "is something that had to happen to appreciate the person that she was, as a woman ... especially as a Black woman."

"She accomplished so much in her life," said Shahzaade Sheppard, English's 16-year-old granddaughter, who found it sad that "now that I'm old enough to appreciate her, she's gone."

English is gone, but hardly forgotten.

Her funeral services occurred Tuesday and donations can be made to the Paul Robeson Theater Renovation Project at 158 W. Englewood Ave., Englewood, NJ 07631.