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Bernard A. Drew: For her groundbreaking work in medicine, Great Barrington native May Edward Chinn deserves a commemorative stamp | Columnists

Don’t be surprised to see another Great Barrington resident appear on a US Black Heritage stamp one day.

Three Manhattan women visited the city this month: Dolores Leito and Michelle Deal Winfield, co-chairs, and Christine Merritt, historian, all members of the committee honoring May Edward Chinn, physician. Frances Jones-Sneed and I met with them to learn more about their efforts to create a commemorative postage stamp featuring Dr. Chinn to market.

Chinn was included in “African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley”, for which Frances was an associate editor and I was a contributing editor in 2006. We knew she was born in Great Barrington.

Ahead of the meeting, I did some more research into the story of the Church Street house where Chinn was born. This portion of the village between Main Street and the Housatonic River was gradually improved by George R. Ives, who built Bridge Street, River Street, and Church Street in 1882 and divided the land into building lots.

Maria Van Ness (1799-1872), a black woman who worked as a housekeeper for Sarah, Mary, and Nancy Kellogg at Rose Cottage on South Main Street, owned a building site on Church Street. She was a sister of Othello Burghardt, the grandfather of WEB Du Bois.

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She sold the land to Thomas Jefferson McKinley (circa 1784-1896). “Old Jeff” had fled New Orleans during the Civil War and followed Massachusetts’ 49th troops back to Massachusetts. Gardening and peddling yielded house-to-house, he pottered about. He had two children in the South, but married Margaret Cooley here. He had two houses built, of which he lived in one and rented the other. In 1868, McKinley rented the second home to recently marry 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, Virginia, and escaped slavery at age 11 from the Cheyne (Chinn) plantation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. William was the son of Benjamin Tasker Chinn (1807-1886), a white plantation owner, and probably Susan Spencer, an enslaved black woman. William Chinn went 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 people of Great Barrington created their own community through the African Methodist Episcopal Society, which met regularly in members’ homes until it built its own Clinton AME Zion Church in 1887. William Chinn was one of them, and his daughter was probably baptized here.

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The family moved to New York City in 1899. May Edward Chinn said her father was out of work drinking and arguing. The parents separated, but kept in touch.

May’s pioneering 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 for her tuition. She became piano accompanist to Paul Robeson. Changing course, she took the exam for Bellevue Hospital Medical School and received her certification in 1921.

She did an internship at Harlem Hospital and was the first woman to ride with the paramedics on emergency calls. Chinn opened a private general practice and worked with other black doctors associated with Edgecombe Sanitarium. To overcome a color barrier in cancer research, she took 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 from 1928 to 1933 researched cytological methods of detecting cancer with Pap test developer Dr. George Papanicolaou. She eventually earned admission privileges at Harlem Hospital. In 1944 she was invited to hold a position at the Strang Cancer Clinic until she retired in 1974.

She joined 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 awarded her an honorary doctorate of science in 1980 for her contributions to medicine. For these and more reasons, the visitors from Manhattan are calling for a stamp for Chinn.

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What became of the McKinley houses?

Chinn sold his property in 1898 to Stanley Instrument Co., who wanted it for an industrial estate. In 1898, McKinley’s heirs sold the rental house to Alfred and Lulu Williams, and that property was razed to the ground as well. The two McKinley residences 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 for the empty lot recognizes 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 in 1995 by WH Freeman & Co.



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