Louise Fleming’s life was steeped in American Baptist history, but what made it remarkable was her pioneering of new trails for later generations. Her legacy includes being the first African American woman appointed as a missionary by Baptists, the first African American woman to graduate from the Women’s Medical College, and the first female medical missionary.
Louise was born to enslaved parents on January 22, 1862, on a plantation in Hibernia, Florida. Her mother raised her after her father died in the Union Army. She attended Bethel Baptist Church and became a Christian at a revival in 1876. Upon hearing her teach a Sunday school class, Dr. Kellsey, pastor of the Sixth Avenue Church in Brooklyn, New York, was impressed with her passion for Christ and teaching abilities. He and the church financed her attendance at Shaw University in North Carolina. Founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society, this university created the first building of higher education for African American women. Louise graduated as class valedictorian and went on to become a public school teacher.
Heeding God’s call, Louise began to pursue missionary work. At the invitation of the Woman’s American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (WABFMS), she became the first African American woman they appointed as a missionary. Missionaries whom WABFMS recruited were appointed by the American Baptist Missionary Union (ABMU), now known as International Ministries.
Louise arrived in Palabala, Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), on May 2, 1887. She served as matron at the mission’s school and taught primary and English classes. Louise also travelled to nearby towns where she preached in Kikongo. With a vision of empowering others, she sent promising students on to Shaw University to earn a higher education and return to transform their communities.
Unfortunately, Louise fell ill and had to return to the U.S. in 1891. Recognizing the lack of medical care in the Congo, she decided to study medicine so she could further help the people she served. Louise became the first African American woman to attend the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia (the second college in the world founded to train female doctors).
After Louise became a doctor, the Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia commissioned her as the first female medical missionary and sent her back to Irebo, Congo, and later to Bolengi, still under WABFMS auspices and ABMU appointment. As the only female African American doctor in the Congo, Louise provided quality medical care and empowered the Congolese people by training them to provide much needed medical support within their communities.
Louise returned to the U.S. after contracting the African “sleeping sickness” (trypanosomiasis) and consequently died June 20, 1899, at the age of 37.
As a doctor and missionary, Louise ministered to people’s bodies and souls. As a teacher, she enabled and raised up others to continue the work. As a groundbreaking force, she forged new trails as both a woman and an African American. May Louise’s legacy inspire us to be brave enough to respond to the needs around us even when that means creating new paths.
Author Darshana Chetti is the daughter of Dr. Samuel Chetti, CEO/Executive Minister Emeritus of ABCOFLASH, and the niece of IM global servants to Lebanon, Dan and Sarah Chetti.
Read more from this series: