A Snapshot in Time The Brilliant and Beloved Dr. Frances Ford and Dr. Helen Sexton

By Joanne A Calitri   |   March 15, 2022
The original 1923 photograph of Dr. Frances Ford, Dr. Helen Sexton, and office nurse Joy Tenney (photographer unknown, digital restoration by Joanne A. Calitri)

Every picture tells a story. On February 11, while researching a Black History Month story to report on, I had a phone meeting with the new Montecito Journal (MJ) Managing Editor Zach Rosen. That same day, Dr. Joseph Pineda DPM dropped off a photograph he had on his office wall to the MJ. Rosen said, “Pineda, whose office is under ours, dropped off a photograph dated 1923, because he thought the newspaper would be interested in it for Black History Month.” Rosen texted me a quick photo and its identifying note read: Dr. Frances Ford, a Black/African doctor; Dr. Helen Sexton, a Caucasian doctor; Joy Tenney, office nurse; and two female patients at the San Marcos Building on State Street 1922-23. He asked if I was interested in researching it. Yes please – a story of these women making history on all fronts for Women’s History Month! What I uncovered was a multi-generational story of friends, feet, and a little serendipity.

Getting the Shot

I picked up the photo, and determined it is a late ‘80s black and white photocopy. Googling the doctors’ names I found a listing for the original photo on eBay by a seller in Pomona, California. Given this, I called community historian Sojourner Kincaid Rolle to ask if she had heard of the women doctors. She had not and invited me to the Melanin Gallery to meet Krystle Farmer Sieghart, co-founder of Healing Justice SB (HJSB). I brought Pineda’s photo and the eBay listing to the gallery. Sieghart said she had heard of Dr. Ford but had never seen a photograph. She immediately purchased the eBay original photo for the Melanin Gallery. 

With everyone’s blessing, I went forth to research these women for a proper news report. Sources used, and a thanks to, include: Chris S. Ervin, CA Archivist Santa Barbara Historical Museum, SB County Genealogy Society Sahyun Librarians, the U.S. Census, the California Board of Medical Examiners, the SB Cemetery, the SB News-Press, the U.S. Social Security CA Death Index, FamilySearch.com, the SB Directory, the U.S. Military Roster of Troops 10th Cavalry, OfficialUSA.com, The Morning Press, WorthPoint.com, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, eBay, and Digital Collections & Web Services Librarian Kathleen Kosiec at the City of Santa Barbara Public Library. As of this news report date, here are the findings:

Depth of Field

At the time of the photograph Ford was 34, Sexton 60, and Tenney 18 years old. There are the doctors’ licenses on the wall, and a large panoramic photograph of soldiers under a canopy structure. It appears to be a “posed candid” with the two doctors working on two female patients, while Tenney is posed and looking at the camera. The photographer’s point of view is from the office doorway on the left, likely using an 4×5 field (handheld) camera or SLR camera of the day, a normal lens, and available light from the office’s front windows. It is a standard black and white 1920-30s print sized 5 x 7 inches, intact save a tear at the top, some water marks, and age spots. It is glued to a black mount board with names and dates written in pen on the back. 

Dr. Pineda’s photograph of Ford and Sexton came to him from Dr. Sidney Geiger DPM, when he purchased Geiger’s practice at 1734 State Street, in January 1986. Pineda explains, “When I took over the office, I found the framed photo of Dr. Ford and Dr. Sexton. Geiger told me that Tenney was a patient of his. When Tenney passed, her daughter gave him the photo. He passed it on to me. I have kept it on my office wall there and presently at my office in Montecito. When it fell off the wall in my office the other week while I was cleaning, I thought the Montecito Journal would be interested in it for Black History Month. Both the California Podiatric Medical Association and the American Association for Women Podiatrists, Inc. would be happy to have a record of this photograph and any information on these women doctors.”

The back of the original photo of Dr. Ford and Dr. Sexton listing who is in the photograph, date, and location (photo by Joanne A. Calitri)

I reached out to Geiger’s daughter Carolyn Geiger who shared, “I have a copy of the photograph as well from my dad, with all the names written on the back, but it is not my parents’ handwriting. I don’t know how he got the photograph. The story I was told is when my parents moved here in February 1947, Dr. Ford was the only chiropodist in town. She and dad became friends. Dad was born in New York, the son of immigrants. He graduated from NYU, then medical school in Chicago (which is where he met my mother). He went into the Army. Following discharge from the Army, he and my mother decided to move to Santa Barbara.”

Time Lapse

This brings us to Dr. Frances Ford, aka Frances Alexander Ford, a most beloved Santa Barbara community member, who broke many glass ceilings in her day. She was born February 25, 1889 in Texas and died April 7, 1959 aged 70 in Los Angeles, buried at the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Her father’s surname is Alexander and mother’s surname is Owens. 

Ford lived in San Antonio, Texas, and Arizona with her husband, John A. Ford. He was a Sergeant in the 10th Cavalry Regiment aka the Buffalo Soldiers of the United States Army, under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, and was with him during the raid against Francisco “Pancho” Villa in 1916-17. Ford was sent to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, during WW1, as African American units were not allowed to participate with the American Expeditionary Force during World War 1. He passed on March 3, 1920, with Frances and Pershing exchanging birthday and Christmas cards, even after John’s death.

Ford moved to San Francisco to attend the California College of Chiropody, now called the California School of Podiatric Medicine, graduating June 7, 1921. She was licensed by the California Medical Board as a Chiropodist November 28, 1921.

Moving to Santa Barbara, Ford shared the chiropodist office of Dr. Helen C. Sexton, at #314 San Marcos Building, 1127 State Street, before the earthquake of 1925 demolished the building. Her next office was on Chapala Street, the site of the old Greyhound Bus Station, where she also lived with her mother. She later moved offices to the Balboa Building, 735 State Street, and lived at 721 Spring Street in a gray house. She did not remarry, nor had any children. 

At the Montecito Journal offices, from left: Dr. Joseph Pineda and MJ Managing Editor Zach Rosen holding Pineda’s copy, and Sojourner Kincaid Rolle and Krystle Farmer Sieghart holding the original 1923 photo of Dr. Ford and Dr. Sexton (photo by Joanne A. Calitri)

It is oral history (not yet confirmed) that her mother was Harriet E. Thomas, a dressmaker who resided on Micheltorena Street (1920) and at 1018 Chapala Street (1930). I reached out to the Santa Barbara Cemetery who was able to find Ford’s burial records. Upon Ford’s death, her and Thomas’ (d. October 1933) burial niches were purchased together by the same person – most likely an estate attorney – as no name that purchased them was listed. Ford’s and Thomas’ niches are placed together.

Sexton was born March 27, 1863, in Ipswich, England, and passed on December 7, 1933, in Santa Barbara. She was a nurse in the UK, moved to the U.S. in 1888, and to Santa Barbara in 1901, living at 109 West Mission Street. She became a licensed chiropodist in California on December 27, 1915. Sexton was very active in establishing the Santa Barbara Humane Society with a focus on child poverty. She authored a pocket-size book on foot care that was used by British and French armies during the war, for which she received an award from Great Britain. She wrote articles and placed ads for her practice in The Morning Press. Sexton had a daughter Osyth R. Fryer and grandson Norman Llewellyn Fryer in the Santa Barbara area, with sisters in England – Rose Graham in Guildford-Surrey, and Jean Turner in Walberswick.

From 1876 through March 1922, there were only 250 licensed Chiropodists in California; Ford was number 248 and Sexton number 109.

Joy Belle Tenney wasborn November 6, 1905 and passed May 1, 1995 in Claremont, California, and buried in the Santa Barbara Cemetery. She is a 7th generation Californian, and Native Daughter of the Golden West. Tenney graduated SB High School in 1924, ran track and was a long-distance swimmer. She worked as 15th District PTA President for two years, and 14 years at the SB Historical Society Research Library. Her hobbies were history and genealogy. She married Isaac “Ike” Antonio Bonilla. They published two books and contributed historic documents to the Bancroft Library and UC Berkeley. Their son Kenneth Bonilla MD and wife, Ilene, lived in Claremont, and it is most likely from his estate after he (2009) and his wife passed (June 2020) that the original photograph came to be listed for sale on eBay September 23, 2021. I reached out to the eBay seller for any information. He emailed that the photo came from an estate sale he was helping with and was not free to discuss his client’s information, nor did he know about Dr. Ford or Dr. Sexton. 

The two female patients in the photograph are “Chair #1 Birtha Schelling” and “Chair #2 Mrs. Lela Kirsten, a former employee of the Gas Company.” At the time of this report, we have no information on them. Although, we feel lucky that we were able to uncover as much as we did about the other women gracing the photo. And I can’t help but wonder – how many other wonderful women’s stories sit there, waiting to be discovered from a photo falling off the wall?  


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