Black Comfort: A Brief History of African American Hospitals and Clinics in the Mississippi Delta in the Early Modern South

By Zheng, Jianqing | Southern Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Black Comfort: A Brief History of African American Hospitals and Clinics in the Mississippi Delta in the Early Modern South


Zheng, Jianqing, Southern Quarterly


The Mississippi Delta offers grim landmarks of not only weather-withered shacks, tombstones, ghostly stores, blues sites, and rundown or abandoned churches but also closed or transformed hospitals and clinics that once provided the only hope for health care for segregated African American communities in the postbellum and early modern South. For many years, discrimination and segregation had legally, economically, and medically denied African Americans access to proper medical facilities and care. In 1899, for instance, W. E. B. Du Bois lost his son Burghardt to diphtheria because he had failed to find an African American physician in Atlanta where white doctors refused to treat black patients. Reflecting on his dying son in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois almost broke into tears through his words:

And then one night the little feet pattered wearily to the wee white bed, and the tiny hands trembled; and a warm flushed face tossed on the pillow, and we knew baby was sick. Ten days he lay there,-a swift week and three endless days, wasting, wasting away. Cheerily the mother nursed him the first days, and laughed into the little eyes that smiled again. Tenderly then she hovered round him, till the smile fled away and Fear crouched beside the little bed.

. . . the Shadow of Death. The hours trembled on; the night listened; the ghastly dawn glided like a tired thing across the lamplight. Then we two alone looked upon the child as he turned toward us with great eyes, and stretched his string-like hands,-the Shadow of Death! And we spoke no word, and turned away. (131-32)

The tragedy befalling Du Bois's son did not, however, threaten Willie Morris, who grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in the 1930s. When Morris was an infant he was privileged to receive urgent care that saved his life. Yet, ironically, the doctor who took care of him was an African American. Morris wrote about this experience in his award-winning memoir, North toward Home:

When I was slightly less than a year old, in 1935, I almost died. i lay in a crazy fever in the back room, shook with convulsions, and gave every indication of a precocious death. My doctor could not be found. My parents tried to telephone every white doctor in town. Finally, as I was told it later, they called Dr. Miller, the Negro doctor. He came right away and saved my life. (8)

The physician, who had to walk into Morris's house through the back door, was Dr. Lloyd Tevis Miller, born in Natchez in 1874 to former slaves. After receiving his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in 1893, Miller opened his practice in Yazoo City and became sought often in the lower Delta for treating patients of both races during the outbreak of smallpox. Impressed with Miller's credentials, Howard Coast, a white store owner, publicly urged residents to go to him for medical care (Sewell and Dwight 362). With Coast's backing in 1907, he opened Miller's Infirmary that "contained 18 beds" (Rice and Jones 56), the first and only medical facility for blacks in Mississippi. In 1928, Miller helped the businessman Thomas Huddleston to found the Afro-American Sons and Daughters Hospital, the first medical facility exclusively owned and operated by blacks in Mississippi, and served as its first chief surgeon. According to retired Greenville physician Dr. Michael C. Trotter,

Miller's practice was busy. He was regarded very highly in the white community. Plantation owners referred their workers and sharecroppers to him and often paid the bills. When a white physician could not be reached, white patients requested house calls from him. ("Lloyd Tevis Miller" 52)

For almost sixty years, Miller "performed more than 35,000 operations" and took care of "a vast majority [of individuals] throughout the Delta" (Sewell and Dwight 361). In addition to his medical practice, Miller owned a pharmacy called People's Drugstore on Commercial Street in Yazoo City, but it was demolished many years ago, said John Ellzey, the local history and genealogy librarian at the Ricks Memorial Library in Yazoo City. …

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