As a doctor, playwright, actress, activist and community leader, Dr. Sophie Redmond showed how much we can do with our time on earth. I started The Black Archives Icons series because I thought — perhaps naively — that if more people knew the stories behind The Black Archives mural, more people would share my outrage at its destruction. I have to confess, however, that I didn’t actually know Dr. Redmond’s full story, only that she was an early female doctor. Learning about her has inspired me to take on 2021, and I hope it does the same for you.
Jeanne Sophie Everdine Redmond was born in 1907 in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. Her father was a schoolteacher who wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps. At the time, being a teacher was the highest professional achievement available to a dark-skinned woman in colonial Suriname. He was extremely concerned when she announced she was going to med school — and not without reason.
She had to fight just to get admitted; the school administration initially rejected her application. Once she got them to admit her, she faced the financial and academic challenges alone. The best she could hope for from classmates and teachers was indifference — and she often didn’t even get that. Despite the insults and obstacles, she became the fifth woman to graduate and the first Creole woman.
In fact, her culture was a huge part of her life. As with any culture, it’s difficult to succinctly describe Surinamese Creole culture. There’s an added element of confusion here because various countries use the word Creole in very different ways. Broadly, Surinamese Creole culture is created by the descendants of formerly enslaved people, with some elements passed down from African cultures, some Dutch-inflected elements and some elements that are uniquely, joyfully Surinamese.
One such element is Sranantongo, a fluid language based on English and Dutch. When Dr. Redmond was in school, this language was spoken privately by a large part of the population but never used in official documents or public addresses. That was one of many trends Dr. Redmond would defy.
As she built her practice amongst the poor, she offered her patients advice as well as healthcare. She advised them on wellness, as well as marital, family, household and financial issues. Eventually, she developed this into a radio program in Sranantongo, where she would offer medical lessons from her practice and respond to letters requesting advice.
She also used Sranantongo in the theater she helped create, both as a performer and a writer. Ironically, it began with the 1948 introduction of universal suffrage. She performed in a farce, which she may also have cowritten, that contained information about voting. The folk theater was popular and attended by the same people her practice served, who had limited access to other sources of information. She wrote and performed in several more plays that both entertained and shared information, about everything from healthy eating to the living conditions in Suriname.
She also became a more outspoken champion of Creole culture. She wore a koto, a type of beautifully colored traditional garment, and organized koto shows to draw attention to the style. She focused on native foods and dishes in her talks and refused to buy imported fruits. When she died at age 48, she was in the process of undertaking a systematic survey of the properties of Surinamese healing herbs.
One of the sources I read said that “she died while still full of plans”. I think the other side of that sentence is that her life was full of not only plans but actions. It is the rare person who has both the creativity to see new ideas and the determination to convert them into action, regardless of the obstacle. Dr. Sophie Redmond did the concrete work of treating her patients’ bodies while building the ideas to heal their spirits. Just imagine what we could all do with her inspiration and focus.
You can find out more about what happened to the mural and contribute to the fund to refurbish it on The Black Archives’ article here (scroll down for the English version). I’ll be posting here on Medium and on socials under the tag #BlackArchivesIcons.
Please repost to help broadcast these stories. There’s also something else we can do. The City of Amsterdam has announced that it will soon be open to ideas for new street names (under its Diverse Stad, Diverse Straatnamen initiative). We can suggest the people honored by The Black Archives: Anton de Kom, Cindy Kerseborn, Dr. Sophie Redmond, Hugo Kooks, Perez Jong Loy, Otto Huiswoud and Hermina Huiswoud. In the meantime, I noticed that the bridge leading to the street with Anton de Kom’s Amsterdam home is unnamed and the Committee for Naming Public Spaces accepts suggestions by email.