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March 12, 1912: 'Negro girl' is Mechanic Arts valedictorian

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • May 9, 2014 - 9:59 AM
 
Catharine D. Lealtad was the only black student in her senior class at St. Paul’s Mechanic Arts High School. Her “splendid record” prompted Principal George Weitbrecht to select her as valedictorian. He told the Appeal, an “Afro-American” newspaper in St. Paul: “It was simply a question of brains, not color.”
 
 
  Catharine Deaver Lealtad in about 1912.
It was the first of a lifetime of academic and professional honors. She later enrolled at Macalester College and in just three years earned a degree in chemistry and history, again finishing at the top of her class. For a short time, she taught school in Missouri and Ohio. She moved to New York and worked for the YWCA and the Urban League, then enrolled in medical school at Cornell. There she encountered racial prejudice and was forced to drop out. At the urging of a mentor, she enrolled in medical school in France to study pediatrics. She returned to the United States, interned at a Chicago hsopital and worked at infant clinics in Harlem. In 1945, she was commissioned as a U.S. Army major and served in Germany, where she oversaw medical services for displaced children, and China, where she helped in the fight against a cholera epidemic.

After the war, Dr. Lealtad returned to New York and over the next two decades served children from impoverished families. After her “retirement” in 1968, she worked for many years at a mission hospital in Puerto Rico and a free clinic in Mexico. She is the only person to receive two honorary degrees from Macalester College, one for her career and one for her post-retirement service. She died in 1989.

From the Minneapolis Tribune:
 

Negro Girl Valedictorian

Daughter of Colored Minister to Lead in St. Paul School Exercises.

A negro girl, daughter of Rev. Alfred H. Lealtad, rector of St. Phillip’s Episcopal church, will be the valedictorian at the graduating exercises of the Mechanics’ Art senior class of St. Paul, which takes place next June. Her name is Catherine Deaver Lealtad. She is 17 years old.

The only negro in her class Miss Lealtad, according to the principal of the Mechanics Art, has made a splendid record as a student and has stood at the head of her class since she entered.

As far as any trouble among the members of the senior class over the selection of Miss Lealtad as the valedictorian, the teachers and students are silent. They intimate that no protest will be made. Marcus L. Countryman, son of M.L. Countryman, general counsel for the Great Northern railroad, stands second in the class and under ordinary circumstances will represent his class as salutatorian.

 
Principal George Weitbrecht in front of St. Paul's Mechanic Arts High School in 1909. (Image courtesy of mnhs.org)

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