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Grave of Ind.'s first black doctor gets headstone

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The grave of a man believed to have been Indiana's first licensed African-American physician is finally being honored with a headstone more than a century after his death.

The marker commemorating Dr. Samuel A. Elbert will be dedicated Tuesday at his grave at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis thanks to an effort by the Indianapolis Medical Society and the Aesculapian Medical Society.

Elbert, who died in 1902, overcame racial barriers in the medical field by winning a court battle to officially attend medical school and get his license. The Indianapolis Star reports (http://indy.st/114raIt ) that Elbert, like many of his relatives, was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill Cemetery.

Wilma Moore, the Indiana Historical Society's senior archivist of African-American history, said Elbert's achievements as a black medical pioneer in Indiana will now be recognized with an identifiable grave marker honoring his life.

"Grave markers always suggest legacy and legacy is important to let folks know that you were here. They also suggest what you did when you were here and that you will not be forgotten. Certainly in Dr. Elbert's case his legacy is great," Moore said Monday.

Elbert was born on April 9, 1832, in Kent County, Md., to free parents. He moved in 1857 to Cincinnati, where he became a personal servant to a lieutenant in the 23rd Ohio volunteer infantry unit during the Civil War.

Elbert was admitted to Oberlin College in 1863 and studied there for more than three years before moving to Indianapolis in 1866 to teach at a school run by the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

He became interested in medicine after gaining access to a doctor's personal library, but Elbert's race posed serious challenges to his education. Most white doctors would not allow him in their offices, and medical schools refused to accept him.

Elbert was eventually able to attend the Medical College of Indiana in 1869 by doing work around the campus in exchange for attending lectures. Elbert also began paying tuition, but the college refused to label him a regular student or grant him a degree.

He challenged the college in court and won a case that forced the school to recognize him as a student. Elbert was awarded a license in 1871 that allowed him to practice medicine. He practiced from an office in Indianapolis and even served one term as president of the Indianapolis Board of Health.

Elbert was later appointed by then-President Benjamin Harrison to serve as a local pension surgeon, but he declined the appointment after whites in the medical field strongly opposed it.

His eldest son, James, also became a physician and worked alongside his father before dying at a young age in 1894.

Elbert continued his practice until December 1901. He died on July 9, 1902, survived by his wife, Caroline, and six other children.

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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