Chronicles of Black Courage: Robert R. Moton Risked Life in Fight for Black Doctors at Tuskegee Veterans Hospital

By Bennett, Lerone, Jr. | Ebony, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Chronicles of Black Courage: Robert R. Moton Risked Life in Fight for Black Doctors at Tuskegee Veterans Hospital


Bennett, Lerone, Jr., Ebony


MEN are defined by acts and walls. They are defined by what they find by what they do when they find themselves, alone and unprotected, with their backs to the wall. At that point, at the point of the wall, where it is no longer possible to cheat or hide or run, the words militant and moderate lose their meaning and new relations are established between history, politics personality.

Nothing shows this more clearly than the 1923 ordeal of Robert Russa Moton, Booker T. Washington's successor as president of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). For although Moton, like Washington, was known as an accommodator, he proved, at a crucial moment in our history, that there are limits to accommodation and that it is neither wise nor profitable to push a man too far.

Moton's ordeal grew out of a government decision to build an all-Black veterans hospital on land donated by Tuskegee Institute. At that point--in the 1920s--many disabled Black veterans were "farmed out" to second-rate private facilities or ignored altogether, and the decision raised large questions of public policy especially for Black militants who demanded immediate integration of all veterans hospitals. Failing in that demand, the militants united with moderates on a platform that demanded Black doctors, Black nurses and Black administrative control of the Tuskegee hospital.

The most eloquent and determined advocate of this policy was Robert Moton, who found himself in an embarrassing and possibly disastrous position. For the stability of Tuskegee Institute was founded on accommodation with Tuskegee and Alabama Whites, who were vehemently opposed to Black control of the hospital and who looked forward with eagerness to the $65,000 a month the hospital would pump into the local (White) economy. So compelling were the fears and interests of these Whites that they abandoned basic tenets of the segregationist faith. It was believed then, and later, that it was unwise to introduce White women (nurses, clerks, aides) into all-Black male settings. Alabama law, moreover, made it a crime for White nurses to treat Black male patients. But where there is a White will there is a White way, and the $2,500,000 hospital was dedicated in February 1923, under the arrangement which called for White doctors, White nurses and "colored nurse-maids." The general idea was that each White nurse would be accompanied by a "colored nurse-maid" who would receive menial pay and do the actual work of touching and caring for the Black patients.

But segregationists, not for the Last time, underestimated Robert Russa Moton, who was a master of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. More to the point, Moton had considerable influence at the White House and scores of undercover agents. To the dismay of some Whites and the surprise of many, Moton--aided by the NAACP, the Black press, Black Republicans, the Black church and the National Medical Association--deployed his forces and persuaded President Warren G. Harding and Veterans Bureau Director Frank T. Hines to reverse their policy. On February 23, 1923, President Harding's secretary sent the following message to the director of the Veterans Bureau:

"I have brought the text of your letter of February 20th to the attention of the President. He has directed me to say that it is his wish that there be no designation of doctors and nurses for the care of the colored soldiers at the United States Veterans Hospital at Tuskegee until there has been a thorough and determined effort to secure a civil service list of eligible Negro citizens. Dr. Moton, Principal of Tuskegee Institute, has assured the President of his willingness to be helpful, and the President asks that you seek his cooperation."

By May 8, President Harding, prodded by Moton, the NAACP and the National Medical Association, was pressing "a gradual and consistent program of installing what is to be ultimately an exclusively colored organization. …

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