Black History Month is a time to appreciate black America’s greatest figures — from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B Du Bois to Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass — along with their struggles, accomplishments and principles.
It’s also a time to appreciate local heroes.
Palmyra residents and Moorestown natives Carl and Lisa Davis celebrate Dr. Edgar Arthur Draper, the first African American doctor in Cape May County and Carl’s grandfather.
Born to Justina and Joseph Draper in Philadelphia in 1886, Dr. Draper was exceptional academically; he attended the city’s Central High School, an institution for the gifted. After graduating in 1906, he attended the University of Pennsylvania for medical school, finishing second in his class in 1912. After interning for two years at Mercy-Douglass Hospital, the doctor started his own practice in Cape May.
According to the Davises, Draper decided on Cape May after considering
looking at cities such as Baltimore, Maryland and Williamsburg, Virginia. During the 1900s, Cape May was easily accessible by train and had a year-round population of African Americans.
“It’s amazing that my grandfather was able to accomplish all of these things during that time period,” said Carl. “He was gifted. He died two years after I was born, but it’s strange how similar we are. Even down to playing the piano. I also play the piano.
“Carl’s mother wanted him [Carl] to be a doctor because she was so proud of her father,” said Lisa. “My mother-in-law once told me that back then, a lot of white folks died in Cape May because they refused to go to him.
“He treated a lot of people, black and white,” she continued. “One lady from Moorestown who recently passed told me that she broke her leg in multiple places and Dr. Draper had a technique to reset her leg that no one else could do.
“He was really well advanced for that time and no one knew it — except really only the black people,” said Carl.
According to Lisa, Draper’s medical practice was so well-received in 1915, he was invited to be a toastmaster at a dinner honoring Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP, a friend and a frequent visitor to Dr. Draper’s office.
Becoming a doctor and establishing his own practice during a time when racism and segregation were rampant is reason enough to celebrate Draper’s legacy. But there is an added layer that emphasizes the man he was.
When the call for World War I came in 1917, Draper enlisted and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, serving both the United States and France.
Upon returning home in 1919, Draper continued his practice in Cape May until he passed in 1956 at the age of 68. On Aug. 17, 1971, Draper’s legacy was cemented in Cape May when an extension of Washington Street was dedicated to him.