In this three-part Spectrum special for Black History Month, Benjamin Baker highlights African American Seventh-day Adventist women who significantly contributed to society despite facing the triple strike of color, gender, and religion in an often antagonistic world. Read Part 1, on Mary E. Britton, here, and Part 2, on Irene Morgan, here.
The mother of five wove her rugs whenever she had spare time and at night after her children were fast asleep. Everyone was in awe of the beauty and durability of her rugs; in town she was able to sell them for a good sum. Her master, of course, knew about her rug side business, and didn’t mind as long as it didn’t interfere with her making clothes for his family to wear and sell. The seamstress saved up so much money that she eventually purchased the freedom of each of her five children, which was her goal as soon as she gave birth to them. When she presented the money for her own freedom to her master, he told her it wasn’t enough, that she was too lucrative a worker for him to ever free her. And so she died a slave with her children free.
The tall, dignified black man, just purchased for a small fortune at the auction that morning, refused to pick cotton, claiming that he was the prince of a vast and proud empire back where he came from. The plantation owner who had bought him, notorious for breaking the will of the most stubborn Africans, just chuckled and shook his head. That evening as the sun was setting, the black man’s arms were forced to embrace a tree trunk and his wrists were tied together with a braided horsehair rope. Long into that dreaded night the man’s screams could be heard as the whip cut into his flesh. By midnight half of his body was cut open and raw. He had many chances to agree to work, but he refused. “I’m a prince, never a slave,” were the words that escaped with his final breath as his dead body slid down the tree trunk.
Though the seamstress and the prince never met, they were joined together—not by a common past, but by a shared future in the person of their great granddaughter, Ruth Temple, who would possess an indomitable will and a sacrificial love.
Ruth Janetta Temple was born in Natchez, Mississippi, on November 1, 1892. Ruth’s mother was Amy Montague Morton Temple, a sophisticated woman who earned a teaching degree from Shaw University in Raleigh, South Carolina, the first historically black college. Ruth’s father was Richard Jason Temple, a Baptist minister and church leader, who had finished all his doctoral work except for a dissertation at Dennison University. Amy and Richard met at the Hotel Astoria in New York City, where they both worked to pay for college. They were soon engaged to be married, agreed that they would have six children. But when Richard told Amy that he felt called to go South to be a missionary, she told him to find someone else to marry; she’d never raise kids in that racist, non-diverse region.
“Don’t worry, Amy, it’ll be alright, because what we’ll do, we’ll get a house by the side of the road where the people pass by. People will come into our house—all people, all kinds of people, of all races, all creeds, all colors, all educational backgrounds,” Richard promised, getting into it, his speech quickening. “Our children will learn love before they learn hate, and then the rest won’t matter.”
That house by the side of the road was in the very deepest of the South: Natchez, Mississippi. True to his word, Richard, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Natchez, purchased a house on Pine Ridge Road, a main thoroughfare that turned up all sorts of characters at their front door. The 13-acre plot and house, dubbed “Templedale,” became a community gathering spot. Amy Temple was always on the lookout for ill-clothed or ill-fed passers-by, and she’d take them inside and fix them up. Richard Temple entertained clergy from all faiths, inviting them to do research in his well-stocked library that included theological treatises and Greek and Hebrew grammars. Being brought up in this environment, Ruth would say later, “It didn’t make any difference to me about race, and to this day, I can’t see how people look at race as a measure of people.” From her parents she learned to love and care for everyone, no exceptions.
Ruth adored her father. Together they would explore nearby forests and bayous, and she with her five other siblings would playfully pester him—which he loved—while he prepared sermons. When she was ten, illness took away her father. “When he left us, I was heartbroken,” Ruth would say. “It was the first real catastrophe I ever had.”
In 1904, Amy Temple moved her family out of the South to Los Angeles, California. She had previously homeschooled her children, but now to provide for them she had to work as a nurse. This put Ruth into the role of de facto mother, which she took up with gusto, although ironically she would never be a mother herself.
One episode changed Ruth’s life forever. When she was 13, Walter, her oldest brother, was out in their yard experimenting with gunpowder. Not really knowing what he was doing, he packed it into a hose, and lit it. There was a loud explosion—the gunpowder had blown up in his face!
Also outside, Amy Temple and Ruth ran over to Walter, who was on the ground writhing. When Amy saw Walter’s blackened eye and realized what had happened, she lost it, running away yelling, “Oh, he’s blinded himself! He’s blinded himself!” It was the first time Ruth had seen her mother run away from anything.
Ruth carefully took her brother by his head and turned it to her. She calmed him, brushing the soot and powder from his face. She quickly discovered that he hadn’t done any real damage, apart from a singed eyebrow. Seeing firsthand the possibility of helping others and relieving suffering, from that time forward, Ruth wanted to be a doctor.
Another event cemented Ruth’s resolve. The Temple’s neighbors were a German family called the Fennells. One day the youngest Fennell, Ernie, fell into an oil ditch in the neighborhood, and was carried along in the current for a quarter of a mile. When he was finally rescued, the blond haired, white-skinned Ernie was completely black, covered with oil, and not breathing. While everyone was yelling to “Call an ambulance,” Ruth quietly stooped down and gave Ernie CPR. After a few moments of Ruth’s ministrations, Ernie began coughing and breathing. Ruth had saved his life.
Despite her heroics, though, few believed that a black girl could be a medical doctor. It was preposterous, really. There were no black women doctors around—at least none that Ruth knew—and her family was dirt poor. But Ruth kept telling whomever would listen that she was going to be a doctor one day.
About this time Amy Temple began looking for a new church that met her need for a deeper spirituality and gospel teaching. This was a momentous time in the history of black Adventism in California, the genesis of it, in fact. Jennie Ireland, a white Adventist who attended the Los Angeles Central Church, developed a burden to reach the African American population in Los Angeles, mainly concentrated in an area called “Furlong Tract” which linked central L.A. with Watts. Ireland gave Bible studies to a couple named Theodore and Juliette Estelle Troy, who became trailblazers of the message along with her. Estelle Troy taught the Temple family about the Seventh-day Adventist faith. These Angelinos were the charter members of the Furlong Track Church, the first black Adventist congregation in the West, established in 1908.
Furlong Track Church, 1912; Ruth Temple is standing behind boys on far right. Photo courtesy of GC Archives.
One day Theodore Troy heard of Ruth’s aspirations to become a doctor. Along with various professions throughout his life, Troy was a civil rights activist and politician. His son Owen, just seven years younger than Ruth, would become a minister and the first Adventist to earn a doctorate in theology. Sensing immense potential in the 16-year old Ruth, Theodore invited Ruth and her sister Vivian to speak to the “Forum,” a society of influential blacks in the community. To Ruth’s surprise, after she had spoken Theodore stood up and said, “I understand that Ruth Temple wants to be a doctor, so I move that we, the Forum, pay her tuition for her to take medicine.” The motion was unanimously voted. Ruth’s way was paid to study the five-year course in medicine at the nearby College of Medical Evangelists (Loma Linda University).
Ruth enrolled in Loma Linda in 1913, the only black student for most of her time there. More than 60 years later, she recalled:
The one thing about Loma Linda that stands out in my mind: I had one teacher, a Dr. A.W. Truman, who taught us from a book called The Ministry of Healing. It was through this book that I got the concept of a truly large program for community work in public health because it gave the life of Christ and the work that He did. So I formulated the total health program on His work, and developed it with its relationship to health and modern medicine. So Dr. Truman did a remarkable job of bringing to us a practical work in the spirit in which the Master Physician Himself did it.”
When Ruth graduated from Loma Linda in 1918—the first black to graduate from the school—she was ready to implement Christ’s model. She would do so with a level of success that few have achieved.
College of Medical Evangelists, class of 1918; Ruth Temple is seated on far right. Photo courtesy of Loma Linda University Archives.
Southeast Los Angeles, an impoverished community of a quarter of a million people in 1918, would put Ruth’s training to the test. Not a single health clinic could be found in the community. Ruth tried to drum up support to start a clinic through the city health department, the PTA, and various clubs, but nothing materialized.
And so Ruth paid her dues, for nothing would be handed to her. In those lean, early years of her medical career, the twenty-something doctor was a physician of the people, listening to their needs, noting their lifestyle habits and health challenges, always trying to relieve their suffering. Ruth practiced as a general physician, which included delivering babies, physical exams, consultations, immunizations, treating illness and injuries, and anything else that needed to be done. It is commonly held that Ruth was the first black woman physician in the state of California.
In 1923, Ruth started an internship with the Los Angeles City Health Department. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this black female intern would one day be the director of an entire division of the department. In her time in this position, Ruth learned how a government bureaucracy operated, with the politics and procedures and funding. Always one to keep her plate full, in addition to her internship with the Health Department, Ruth practiced as a physician at the pediatric clinic at Loma Linda and the White Memorial Hospital (she was also the first black person to teach on the faculty of White Memorial). It was at this time that Ruth developed a passion for obstetrics and gynecology. Between her various jobs, she oversaw some 300 deliveries a month.
One year, there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Southeast Los Angeles, a pandemic that once wiped out a third of the human population in the Middle Ages. In response to the outbreak, Ruth developed and implemented an ABC approach to personal health care, which was: A) acquire essential basic health knowledge (as a good Adventist Ruth would of course stress the principles of NEWSTART, the eight natural laws of health); B) put that knowledge to practice in your life; and C) share that knowledge with others, especially those in most need of it. She remembers, “Everybody was scared to death [of the bubonic plague]. But what did we do? We applied these three steps…And it was so effective that we’ve never had any other outbreaks of bubonic plague in Los Angeles. So it really works.” Ruth also used the ABCs with the polio epidemic of the early 1950s to great success.
Ruth Temple, 1918. Photo courtesy of Oviatt Library.
Now well into her thirties, the still-single Ruth was getting pressured by one of her close girlfriends to meet her bachelor uncle, whom she believed Ruth would just love. Although she had many marriage proposals, Ruth said, “I had no idea of getting married because I was interested in my career…I didn’t see anybody that I could live with forever, so I had this motto not to get married unless I found someone I’d be more miserable without than I could possibly be with.” She continued, “I’ve known some girls who felt they were kind of dishonored to be old maids, but I was proud of the fact that I was an old maid, and my mother never gave us the idea that we had to get married.”
Her friend’s uncle, a real-estate broker named Otis Banks, was smitten by Ruth upon first sight. He discovered that Ruth loved the outdoors, so he took her and a small group to the mountains, which had breathtaking vistas. In time, Ruth concluded that she would be more miserable without Otis, and the two were married on February 23, 1928. In lieu of having children, Ruth adopted the children of Southeast Los Angeles.
The year of her marriage, Ruth was able to carry out her decade-old vision for Southeast L.A. She and Otis purchased a cottage on 49th and Central Streets and obtained a license for a clinic. Because her practice was her life, Ruth literally lived in the clinic. As the practice grew to include a hydrotherapy room, along with an x-ray machine and other equipment, the newlyweds were being pushed out, and soon there was no space for them. It was Ruth’s idea for Otis and her to bunk in the chicken coop outside, which was on stilts. For two years the couple slept among the feathers, loving every minute of it. Life was an adventure. The Temple Health Institute was the first medical clinic in Southeast Los Angeles.
Ruth decided to start a massive program of health education in the area after she watched a baby die that could have lived. “Health Study Clubs” were first held in the local YWCA. They taught soon-to-be mothers, new mothers, and parents, how to care for themselves, their children, and the ABC-three step approach to optimal health. Ruth and her team also helped people to overcome addictions such as alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse, and promiscuity.
The Health Study Clubs were an immediate hit, and community leaders began sponsoring and participating in them. They soon expanded to the youth of the community. Ruth targeted a local gang notorious for lawlessness and violence. She asked her brother-in-law to beautify their neighborhood by landscaping it, planting flowers and trees. After that she sent her sisters to ask the leader of the gang if he wanted to have his own Health Club. The gang leader agreed, and his gang had their first Health Club meeting in a barn that Ruth let them use. “Men, we are going to have a club,” the gang leader told his followers. “It’s going to be our club. We are going to make the rules, and we are going to keep the rules.” After weeks of following the rules, the police reported that the former gangsters had become the “best allies that the police officers ever had.” The gang leader confessed that “the [Health Study Club] program took us off the street, redirected our whole lives.”
Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1948. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute.
In 1941, Ruth declared war on STDs, which were of pandemic proportions in Southeast L.A. Through intel, she determined that much of the venereal diseases were emanating from a certain group of people that attended two particular nightclubs. “Wouldn’t it be kind of fun if I could have a Health Study Club in a night club?” she mused. And so she approached the owner of the two nightclubs, Curtis Moseby, about the idea, and he replied, “Why not?” Ruth takes up the story:
So then I came down to the night club. I’m a minister’s daughter, and I had not been in the habit of frequenting night clubs, and especially of that group. So Curtis Moseby asked me to go up on the stage. And then he turned the spotlight on me. Here are these people sitting around, smoking, drinking, some of them gambling, and honestly, I was scared to death. I had been doing a great deal of public speaking, and always been perfectly at ease, and the thought came to me, “Well, people are just people.”
So I started with diphtheria, and went from one communicable disease to another. I was soon in venereal diseases over my head and over their heads, and I told them, I said, “I’m the health officer here, and I need help.” And they said that they would help me. So we organized a Health Study Club there in Club Alabam.’ I have pictures of Dr. Yuell, who was the city health officer, and me, sitting here, in this night club, with these people all around us, and it was lots of fun. We would go there, I didn’t suggest it, I didn’t necessarily approve of the tactics that some of my Health Study Club members used, but I did approve of the results they got. One of them went out on the street one day, he got a prostitute, and he said, “Do you want to come in and have a drink?” She says, “Sure.” So when she came in, she saw us there in our white coats, gowns, all that paraphernalia for taking Wasserman tests, and she was a good sport. She took a Wasserman test and didn’t get her drink, and so we found a whole lot of syphilis and gonorrhea, and got it under treatment. They had a band there, just a fellow named Johnny Otis, who used to lead that band, and he'd play the band, and we had our Health Study Club, and oh, it was great. So we've been everywhere, I mean everywhere.
In time, the Health Study Clubs expanded across the region, adopted by groups of all faiths, economic strata, and ages. Even some Hollywood actors joined the Clubs. Ruth reports that there were approximately twenty thousand sessions of the Health Club groups. This movement grew into the Total Health Program, modeled and adapted after Christ’s methods outlined in Ministry of Healing, which was reproduced in cities across the United States.
In 1941 the Los Angeles City Health Department gave Ruth a full scholarship for a master’s in Public Health from Yale University. Before she left though, the city of Los Angeles appointed her its first public health officer.
While at Yale, Ruth was under the tutelage of the renowned C.E.A. Winslow, a founder of the field of public health. She recalls visiting his house in New Haven with her classmates, and literally sitting at his feet, soaking up his immense knowledge. During her time at Yale, Ruth also toured medical clinics throughout Connecticut and New York City. She graduated with honors.
By now, Ruth had perfected the Total Health Program. Through her lobbying, Los Angeles County had inaugurated Health Week, which pointed Angelinos to Health Study Clubs, which in turn encouraged them to share what they learned with those who for whatever reasons would never attend a Health Club. Ruth always stressed that this whole process was to be enacted from a place of love and compassion for the people.
In 1948 Ruth was appointed director of the Division of Public Health for the city of Los Angeles and served in the division in various capacities until her retirement. During this period she was appointed the Medical Director, Founder, and General Chair of the prestigious Community Health Week of the Community Health Association.
By now Ruth had become a legend in L.A. County, and the state of California, a symbol of medical compassion and practicality. Throughout her long career of service she garnered much recognition for her work, including commendations from then California governor Ronald Reagan, and U.S. presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. Numerous medical scholarships have been named in her honor. Fittingly, in 1983, the East Los Angeles Health Center, located in the community in which Ruth spent her working life, was renamed the Dr. Ruth Temple Health Center.
Ruth retired in 1962. The next year she was voted to be the director of the Health Education Department for the Pacific Union, the first black and woman to hold the position. This was apropos, for throughout her lengthy career she had tirelessly promoted Adventist principles, included Adventists in her programs, and was a staunch supporter of the church. At the 1975 General Conference in Vienna, Austria, Ruth was publicly honored with other stellar Adventist women, for her accomplishments in the field of medicine.
When asked in 1978 what role the Seventh-day Adventist faith played in her life, Ruth responded, “Oh, it’s a dominant thing because I feel this way: that God is our creator and without him we can’t do anything. With him we can do anything that’s right for ourselves and for others. So religion is really my life.”
Ruth was honored at a Community Health Week celebration in Los Angeles in March 1978. She relates that “they had an open house, and I was the guest of honor. Oh, I was happy about that. Those little kids down there…I delivered them. Lot of the babies, and a lot of men and women in this audience. I was one of the speakers for that day. There was a gray-haired man, [who said] “I’m one of your babies you delivered.”
Dr. Ruth Temple died in in her beloved city of Los Angeles, on February 8, 1984, at 91.
Ruth Temple, 1978. Photo courtesy of Harvard University.
Sources: The following periodicals were used to write this article: Los Angeles Citizen, Los Angeles Examiner, Los Angeles Record, and Los Angeles Times.
These sources were especially useful: Ruth Janetta Temple, interview by Tahi Mottl, Inglewood, California, June 12, 1978, for the “Black Women Oral History Project,” Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Ruth J. Temple, “I Carry Them on My Heart,” Message, February 1, 1957, 16-17, 23-25.
Further Reading: Hidden Figures: Black Adventist Women Who Made a Difference (Part 1) — Mary E. Britton Hidden Figures: Black Adventist Women Who Made a Difference (Part 2) — Irene Morgan
Benjamin Baker, PhD, is the creator of blacksdahistory.org. He writes from Maryland.
Main image: Inaugurating Health Week, 1961. Photo courtesy of University of Southern California. Additional image information and credits listed below each photo.
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