Breaking The Bronze Ceiling: Dr. Mary Britto


Mary Ellen Britton (April 16, 1855 — August 27, 1925) was born in Lexington as a free person of color – she and her six siblings lived with their parents Laura and Henry Britton on Mill Street, between Second and Third Streets, in the Gratz Park area. She and her sister, Julia Britton Hooks, attended a private school. Her family moved to Berea after the Civil War, and Mary graduated from Berea College in 1874. She taught in central Kentucky’s segregated schools and partici- pated in many civil rights organizations as well as local reform efforts. She was a founding member of the group who created the Colored Orphans Industrial Home in Lexington, and she protested at the Kentucky building in Chicago at the 1893 World Exposition by trying to gain admission. Her newspaper articles on moral and social reform were widely circulated, and she wrote a regular women’s column in the Lexington Herald under the pseudonym “Meb.” 

Britton believed that women were not fully represented by men at the ballot box. In 1887 she gave a suffrage speech before the Kentucky Colored (sic) Teachers Association – the first of its kind in the South and of which she was a founding member: 

“If woman is the same as man then she has the same rights, if she is distinct from man then she has a right to the ballot to help make laws for her government. ... most assuredly is Woman Suffrage a Potent Agency in Public Reforms.” 

By 1896 Lexington’s women – black and white – won the right to vote in school board elections; and in 1901, a large percentage of black women organized to vote for candidates in the Republican Party. Britton and other women were angry that the African American principal Green P. Russell supported radical changes to the school curriculum and that he was personally profiting from acceding to the dictates of the conservative Democratic Party. The large turnout by black women voters led to the state’s revocation of woman suffrage in 1902. Britton left Lexington to attend school in Chicago. She graduated from the American Medical Missionary College and in 1902 was granted a license to practice medicine in Lexington – the first woman to do so. 

She served patients in her home on North Limestone Street (fronting Rand Avenue, in a building still standing) where she practiced for over twenty years. She continued to complain about the poor status of black schools in Lexington, publicly objecting to Russell’s support by the city government. For decades she led the Lexington Women’s Improvement Club efforts to support mothers and children as well as raise funds for literacy efforts. 

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