Black History Month: Dr. Ricketts a force in health care, civil rights

by John Schleicher, McGoogan Library of Medicine | February 21, 2014

Image with caption: Matthew Oliver Ricketts, M.D.

Matthew Oliver Ricketts, M.D.

Matthew Oliver Ricketts, M.D. (1858-1917), was the generally acknowledged political leader of Omaha's African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

Dr. Ricketts was born to slave parents near New Castle, Ky., in 1858. He came with his parents to Booneville, Mo., in 1866, and attended public schools there. He received a degree from Lincoln Institute at Jefferson City, Mo., in 1876. He taught school for two years and in 1880 moved to Omaha.

Despite having scarce resources, he was admitted to Omaha Medical College, where he worked as a janitor to pay his tuition. He received his medical degree in March 1884, and in the fall of that year he began practicing in Omaha. He joined the Omaha Medical Society in 1890 and the Nebraska State Medical Society in 1892. He was married to Alice Nelson of Omaha, and they had three children, Richard, Alma and Helen.

He was elected to the Nebraska state legislature for the sessions of 1892 and 1894, becoming the first Nebraskan of African descent to sit in that body. It was noted that he was "one of the best speakers in the house as well as a ready debater." He was credited with the creation of the Negro Fire Department Company and with securing appointments for blacks in government positions.

Dr. Ricketts led a campaign to strengthen Nebraska's 1885 civil rights law. In 1893, the state's lawmakers passed a measure prohibiting the denial of services in public facilities to anyone on account of race, mainly at Dr. Ricketts's urging. It is noteworthy that this measure was enacted just as most southern states were in the process of establishing Jim Crow facilities. After leaving the legislature, Dr. Ricketts was an unsuccessful candidate for a federal position; his appointment was opposed by a Nebraska congressman.

About 1901, Dr. Ricketts left Nebraska to continue his medical career in St. Joseph.

A leader of the Prince Hall Masons, Dr. Ricketts was elected Worshipful Master of Omaha Excelsior Lodge No. 110, and later Grand Master of the Missouri Grand Lodge. He died in St. Joseph, Mo., on Jan. 15, 1917, at the age of 59.