On July 27, 1857, Jose Celso Barbosa Alacala was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, to a working class parents Hermógenes Barbosa and Carmen Alcalá. Hermogenes worked as a brick mason and was the overseer of a sugar mill in San Antonio, Puerto Rico. Barbosa grew up in an environment where he was encouraged to use his education to achieve greatness. He was a great student which allowed him to attend Puerto Rico’s most prominent Jesuit seminary school. Barbosa graduated from the Jesuit seminary school in 1875, making him the first person of African descent to graduate from the seminary. Soon after graduation, Barbosa began working as a tutor for the children of his father's boss to pay for college. He was an excellent tutor, in addition to being a great student and a great young man. He was so impressive that his father’s boss decided to help Barbosa pay to attend college. After saving enough money to pay for college, Barbosa moved to New York City in 1875 to attend a prep school. At this prep school, Barbosa was able to become fluent in speaking English, fluent enough for Barbosa to attend college in the United States.
Barbosa experienced a change of fate within his educational career that affected his life for the better. He became sick with pneumonia in 1876 while living in New York. After being diagnosed by his doctor, he was encouraged to study medicine, Barbosa's original plan was to study law. Later in 1876, Barbosa began attending Fort Edward College in New York. In 1877, he applied to attend the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University but was denied admission. Some sources say he was denied because he was a black man. He would later apply to attend the University of Michigan’s Medical School and was accepted. In 1880, Jose Barbosa graduated as the first person of Afro-Puerto Rican descent from the University of Michigans Medical School. He not only graduated with his medical degree, but he graduated as Valedictorian. Shortly after graduation, Dr. Barbosa returned to Puerto Rico to practice medicine with his people. He opened a practice in Bayamon, his hometown, and developed a reputation for providing great medical care to poor Afro-Puerto Rican people. His reputation reached the Spanish authorities, who quickly refused to recognize his medical credentials. At the time, the Spanish authorities only acknowledged medical degrees from Spain.
With his medical practice in jeopardy of being shut down, Barbosa reached out to, and received help, from the American counsel. After a heated panel discussion, Dr. Barbosa was allowed to continue to practice medicine in his hometown. He became a member of Logia Estrella de Luquillo Masonic Lodge in 1885. Dr. Jose Barbosa married a woman named Jacinta Belén Sánchez Jiménez in 1887, they produced 11 children. He became an educator in 1888, teaching anatomy, obstetrics, midwifery, and natural science at the Puerto Rican Athenaeum, Puerto Rico’s oldest cultural institution. Later in 1888, Dr. Barbosa became the Under-Secretary of Education for Puerto Rico. Dr. Barbosa is credited with developing a prototype of a health insurance system, the first credit union in Puerto Rico, and establishing a worker’s cooperative called El Ahorro Colectivo in 1893. Dr. Barbosa became active in Puerto Rico’s political movement in 1883, by becoming involved with various political parties he either founded or became a member of. He founded the Puerto Rican Republican Party in 1899 as an advocate for Puerto Rico becoming free from Spanish rulership. He wanted Puerto Rico to have the freedoms of the United States and supported the U.S. annexation of Puerto Rico. Dr. Barbos’a political ideas and activism garnered him the title of “Father of the Puerto Rican Statehood Movement.” He also founded Puerto Rico’s first bilingual newspaper El Tiempo in 1907. Dr. Barbosa was receiving much support from fellow Afro-Puerto Ricans, they even joined his Republican Party because they believed in his political ideas of autonomy and independence from Spain.
Dr. Barbosa became the first black person to be appointed to the Puerto Rican executive cabinet by four U.S. Presidents from 1900 to 1917. He was also elected to the Puerto Rican Senate in 1917 and served until 1921. Dr. Barbosa was inspired by African American abolitionists, educators, scholars, etc, he used that inspiration to continue providing great medical care to his people, use his political platform to help improve living conditions, and published forty years' worth of articles about civil rights and justice for Afro-Puerto Rican people, and African people throughout the diaspora. Dr. Barbosa was given the Cruz de la Orden del Mérito Naval award in 1898 and awarded honorary degrees from the University of Puerto Rico. Dr. Barbosa died on September 21, 1921, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He dedicated over 30 years of his life to serving his people as a doctor, educator, and politician because he wanted his people to live free, healthy, and prosperous lives. To Dr. Jose Celso Barbosa Alcala, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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