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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

Man of Ambition and Adventure

John H. Rapier Jr.

Man standing in a long jacket with his hand on a table.
Courtesy Western University Archives and Special Collections, London, Ont.

John H. Rapier Jr. was a man of adventure and ambition. A traveler and seeker of personal advancement, Rapier spent his early adult years traveling in the Caribbean in his quest for a place for people of color to settle and prosper. His interest in medicine was nurtured there and after his apprenticeship with a physician in Jamaica, he was determined to get a formal education that would afford him a good salary and an ability to support his father and younger siblings.


After receiving his medical degree from Keokuk Medical College in Iowa, he applied for a position as a surgeon in the army and in June 1864 received a contract as an acting assistant surgeon assigned to Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.


With a salary of $100 per month, he reported for duty to fellow Black surgeon-in-charge William P. Powell Jr. Rapier was a prolific writer exchanging letters with his father, uncle, brothers and his cousin Sarah. At Freedmen’s Hospital he observed the reception that a Black officer received while wearing a uniform.


I must tell you coloured men in the U.S. Uniform are much respected here, and in visiting the various Departments if the dress is that of an Officer, you receive the military salute from the ground as promptly as if your blood was a Howard or Plantagenet instead of a Pompey or Cuffee’s. I had decided not to wear the uniform but I have altered my mind—and I shall appear hereafter in full dress gold lace, pointed hat, straps and all.”[1]


Rapier worked long hours at the hospital tending to the ills and injuries of soldiers and civilians telling his uncle, “I never worked so hard, and had so little rest, and felt so tired at night as I do now.” His letters reveal an intelligent, sensitive, ambitious person with a sense of humor and a love for his family.


Learn more about John H. Rapier Jr. in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons. Order today at Southern Illinois University Press and use SIUP20 for a 20% discount or from Amazon.

[1] Rapier Jr. to James P. Thomas, August 19, 1864, Rapier Family Papers, Howard University, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. © Jill L. Newmark, 2023

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