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Meet LGBT History Month icon Ethel Allen

Meet LGBT History Month icon Ethel Allen.

(Editor's note: October is LGBT History Month, celebrated annually to recognize the notable achievements of LGBT people throughout time. Each day this month, Equality Forum will feature one LGBT icon who has made notable contributions to society and SDGLN will publish the story here in the Causes section. View previous LGBT History Month icons HERE.)

Dr. Ethel Allen was an osteopath and a groundbreaking Republican politician. She became the first African-American woman on the Philadelphia City Council.

A Philadelphia native, Allen expressed an interest in medicine from the age of 5. Her father did not attend high school and worked as a self-employed tailor. Allen’s uncle, a dentist, helped spark her interest in becoming a doctor. A back injury she sustained in early adulthood influenced her interest in osteopathy.

Allen faced deeply entrenched discrimination as an African-American woman. Most medical schools made her admission nearly impossible. After graduating from the all-black West Virginia State College, she persevered for seven years before gaining admission to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy. Prior to medical school, she trained as a chemist and worked for a time at the Atomic Energy Commission.

Allen became an osteopath in 1963. She practiced in many of Philadelphia’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. She founded the Community Committee on Medical School Admissions to help increase the numbers of African-American students applying and gaining admission to medical schools.

Allen described herself as a “BFR—a black, female Republican, an entity as rare as a black elephant and just as smart.” In 1972 she was elected to the Philadelphia City Council, making her the first African-American woman to hold the position. After her reelection in 1976, she became the first African-American member to hold an at-large seat.

As a councilwoman, Allen sponsored legislation to tackle crime—a problem she witnessed firsthand—and legislation to combat urban gangs through creation of the Philadelphia Youth Commission. During this time, Esquire magazine named her one of the 12 most outstanding female politicians in the United States.

In 1976 Allen delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention in support of Gerald Ford’s presidential nomination. In 1979 she was appointed Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which made her the highest-ranking African-American woman in the state.

Although she kept her sexuality private, Allen was openly lesbian among her close friends. In February 1976 Governor Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania issued an executive order to create the Pennsylvania Council for Sexual Minorities. A few months later, Allen successfully requested that the governor issue a proclamation in support of gay pride week.

Allen died at age 52, after undergoing heart surgery. The New York Times published her obituary. The Dr. Ethel Allen Elementary School in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood was named in her honor.

Notable quote

“BFR—a black, female Republican, an entity as rare as a black elephant and just as smart.”