Dr. Artesia Gilbert Wilkerson (1868-1904), educator and physician

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This biosketch was written by Dr. Carol Mattingly, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Louisville. For her full project on “African American Women and Suffrage in Louisville,” visit https://arcg.is/1O8muW.


Artesia Gilbert was born in Clay County, Kentucky, circa 1868, to William and Amanda Gilbert. She had one older brother, Lee, who died in childhood, leaving her an only child. In 1870, her father was a farm laborer and her mother a housekeeper. The couple had no real or personal estate in 1870.

In the 1880s, the Gilberts moved to St. Louis and then to Louisville. Artesia’s father was listed as a cart driver in Clay County in 1880. It’s unclear what he did in Louisville, and as the Gilberts never appear in the census again, her parents may have died after they moved to Louisville and before 1900. However, in moving to Louisville, they provided their daughter with educational opportunities she would not have had in Clay County. She also found a mentoring community, especially in Mary Cook Parrish, who wrote an eloquent obituary at her death.

Sometime after 1889, Artesia Gilbert married Bernard Wilkerson, a mail carrier, but Dr. Artesia Wilkerson, who had earned a medical degree in 1893, died young. In 1904 she died from complications of a burst appendix, leaving two children, Bernard and Artesia, only a few years old at the time of her death. The image of Dr. Wilkerson below was found in the Louisville Ledger.

Dr. Artesia Gilbert Wilkerson is one of only four Louisville activists profiled in L. A. Scruggs’s 1893 Women of Distinction, Remarkable in Works and Invisible in Character (others are Mary V. Cook, Lavinia Sneed, and Lucy Wilmot Smith). Scruggs calls her an “advocate of the right of women to engage in any sphere of life.” At the time of Scruggs’s writing (1893) Artesia Gilbert was president of three state organizations, active in the Baptist Women’s Educational Convention, a member of the Board of Managers of the Colored Orphans Home, and active in national Baptist meetings and state and local clubs such as the Woman’s Federation Board, the Woman’s Improvement Club, and the Woman’s Industrial Club, among others. She was an original member of the Red Cross Association, an effort “to equip and maintain a sanitarium for the purpose of treating the sick of the race under the observation of their own people and to operate in connection with such an institution a training school where women of the race can be educated as professional nurses.”

According to Mary Parrish’s eulogy for Dr. Wilkerson, Gilbert attended public schools in Louisville and in 1881 became a Christian, joining Green Street Baptist Church and changing the direction of her life. She subsequently enrolled in Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute (which would become State University and then Simmons), teaching in private homes to help her mother pay the tuition. According to the 1881-82 school catalogue, she graduated first division of the Normal School in 1882. She completed the second division and entered the college division, completing her B.A. in 1889 and graduating Louisville National Medical School in 1893.

In April 1904, Dr. Artesia Gilbert Wilkerson was buried from Green Street Baptist Church, where she had first joined the Baptist Community. According to Mary Parrish, the church could not accommodate all who wished to attend, and the encomiums were numerous and emotional. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

***Sources***

  • American Baptist: 8 January 1904; 8 April 1904.
  • Cleveland Gazette: 15 December 1888.
  • 1879-1907 Twenty-eighth Annual Announcement of State University and 1888-1907 Twentieth Announcement of Louisville National Medical College 1907-1908. Louisville Ky. University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections.
  • Lamb, Daniel Smith. Howard University Medical Department, A Historical, Biographical, and Statistical Souvenir. Washington, D. C., College of Medical Publications, 1900. OCLC 894190848.
  • [Louisville] Courier Journal: I June 1889.
  • 1881-82 Catalogue of the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute. University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections.
  • Scruggs, L. A. Women of Distinction, Remarkable in Works and Invisible in Character. Raleigh, NC: L. A. Scruggs, Publisher, 1893. Internet Archive. 274-76.
  • U. S. Census: 1860-1880, 1900.