José Celso Barbosa Alcalá, physician, polemicist, professor, politician, and publisher, was born on July 27, 1857 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico to Carmen Alcalá and Hermógenes Barbosa, brick mason and San Antonio sugar mill overseer. Barbosa’s life traversed significant periods: Spanish colonization; Grito de Lares; slavery, abolition and emancipation; Spanish–American War; US invasion; and the Jones–Shafroth Act, which imposed US citizenship.
One of the first Afro-Puerto Ricans to graduate from the Seminario Conciliar de San Ildefonso (1875), where a Jesuit priest ridiculed his law aspirations, Barbosa attended New York’s Fort Edward Collegiate Institute (1876), and denied admission into Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (1877). As their first Afro-Puerto Rican student, Barbosa earned a medical degree with honors from the University of Michigan (1880).
Returning to Puerto Rico, his medical reputation grew while serving poor and Black communities. Spanish authorities refused to recognize his US training until a hostile panel administered additional assessments. Barbosa joined the Logia Estrella de Luquillo Masonic Lodge (1885), La Torre del Viejo secret society, Sociedad de Socorro Mutuo, and created El Ahorro Colectivo, Puerto Rico’s first cooperative (1893-1898). He taught natural history, anatomy, obstetrics, and midwifery at the Ateneo Científico y Literario (1888) and appointed Under-Secretary of Education during the brief autonomous regime.
Barbosa founded or joined the Liberal Reformist Party, Assimilationist Committee (1883), Autonomist Committee (1886), Autonomist Party (1887), and the Orthodox Autonomist Party (1897). He advocated for autonomy from Spain and defended US annexation. Considered “Father of the Puerto Rican Statehood Movement,” Barbosa established the Republican Party of Puerto Rico (1899) and their organ, El Tiempo, the island’s first bilingual newspaper (1907). As in the US at this time, the Republican Party attracted many Blacks to its ranks including medical doctor Eulalio García Lascot, teacher Pedro Carlos Timothée, and attorney Eugenio Le Compte Benítez. Appointed by four US presidents, he was the only Black member of the Executive Cabinet (1900-1917), and elected at-large to the Puerto Rican senate (1917-1921).
Jacinta Belén Sánchez Jiménez married Barbosa in 1887. Of their eleven children, three became a dentist (Roberto C. Barbosa), surgeon (Guillermo H. Barbosa), and Puerto Rico’s Official Historian (Pilar Barbosa de Rosario).
For over thirty-years, Barbosa penned articles in various periodicals promoting political and social reform, labor and civil rights, universal suffrage, and republicanism. He read the works and admired the activism of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and A. Philip Randolph. A proponent of racial democracy, Barbosa encouraged inclusion into an openly racist nation and incorrectly believed that Puerto Rican institutional discrimination did not exist.
Barbosa earned the Cruz de la Orden del Mérito Naval (1898); honorary degrees from his alma mater (M.A., 1903) and the University of Puerto Rico (doctorate, 1917). At 64, Dr. José Celos Barbosa died in San Juan on September 21, 1921. The UNIA’s Negro World complimentary obituary called him “always honorable and never forgettable.” After his death the US National Register of Historic Places added his childhood home (1984); his birthday is an official holiday; and streets, schools, masonic lodge, park, caserío, and post office bear his name (2006).