Helena, Montana

Special Report: Celebrating pioneering African-American Montanans in the medical field

HELENA – Octavia Bridgewater grew up in Helena and graduated from Helena High in 1925. Octavia went to the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York and returned to work after graduating in 1930.

“She couldn’t be hired in Helena at the hospital because they didn’t hire African Americans at that time,” said Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler.

She went into private duty nursing until World War II when she joined the Army Nurse Corps.

“She became a first lieutenant and served until 1945,” added Baumler.

After returning from war, transition back into work was a little easier.

“St. Peter’s was beginning to hire African Americans and she was one of the first that was hired and spent a very long career in the maternity department,” said Baumler.

Another contributor during this time was John Duncan of Butte.

“He was a barber who came to Butte in the very early 1900s,” added Baumler. “He graduated in 1920 from chiropodist school which today we would call a podiatrist.”

Duncan’s son went on to graduate from chiropodist school as well.

“And so the two of them were in practice for quite a long time in Butte,” said Baumler.

Philipsburg produced another medical professional named Annie Morgan who wanted to go to medical school.

“Definitely had the skills to do that, but she just never had the money,” added Baumler.

Instead of being a licensed doctor, Morgan became a homesteader.

“She was a healer and brought with her skills that she learned probably from her slave ancestors,” said Baumler.

The Forest Service renovated her cabin that sits along Rock Creek and found her root bundle in the door frame.

‘They have things in there that relate to herbal medicine, but also to spells and things like that,” added Baumler.

These contributions from the African American community in Montana are just a small example of the reasons we celebrate MLK’s fight for equal rights.

Reporting by Mikenzie Frost for MTN News

MTN News

MTN News

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