Black Doctors: A Strong Medicine to Take in the New South

By Savitt, Todd L. | The New Crisis, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

Black Doctors: A Strong Medicine to Take in the New South


Savitt, Todd L., The New Crisis


Shunned by black patients and given short shrift by white colleagues, black doctors at the turn of the century (1880-- 1920) became pioneers in medicine, establishing hospitals and medical colleges.

Most black physicians in practice from 1868 to 1920 attended one of the 14 medical schools established in the South for former slaves. Through every phase of their educational career, beginning with the reading of medical college catalogues and ending with commencement addresses at degree-granting ceremonies, black medical students learned how black people needed them, how they could help raise up the race, and how personally rewarding the profession of medicine could be. They did not hear complaints-increasingly common in the white medical community before 1920-about an overcrowded medical field. Black physicians were in demand.

The New Orleans University Medical Department (later renamed Flint Medical College), for instance, announced in its 1895-1896 catalogues, "The school supplies a wide-felt need in the far South."

That need extended beyond the mere provision of medical care to educating the black populace about proper health practices, explained Lawton A. Scruggs, a graduating student at Leonard Medical School in Raleigh, North Carolina, to his classmates. Caught up in the excitement of Leonard's first graduation in 1886, Scruggs enthusiastically titled his valedictory address, "Medical Education as a Factor in the Elevation of the Colored Race."

Discussing the need of black citizens to hear about recent advances in disease prevention, sanitation, and hygiene, Scruggs asserted, "No one can better teach them these practical and important truths than the educated colored physician who is one of their number."

The challenges of medicine, he continued, would spur black physicians to help their fellow citizens "with the same self-sacrifice, courage, and devotion as has ever characterized the profession. We who stand before you tonight are pioneers of the medical profession of our race."

Booker T. Washington told eager Howard University medical students on the opening day of classes in October 1909 how needed these pioneers were: "There is great demand for Negro doctors. I think we have about 3,500 Negro physicians in America. We need at least 7,000 in America. The white doctor has to seek [his] location, then hang out his shingle, but the location seeks the Negro doctor, Everybody knows him. So our apparent disadvantages become our advantages."

President Charles E Meserve of Leonard Medical School had made similar claims in his 1906 commencement address: "This institution and others of similar character cannot begin to meet the calls that are coming constantly for trained physicians and pharmacists," he said.

Letters in his files demonstrated this point. Citizens of one South Carolina town, for example, had communicated with Meserve several times over two years and even offered to send a representative to Leonard's commencement exercises in hopes of convincing one of the young graduates to set up practice there. Meserve had to inform a citizen of this town that he thought all graduating seniors had "decided upon where they [would] locate."

For the young black doctor, all of this attention meant instant prestige and status in the black community. The biographer of early-twentieth-century Memphis physician Joseph E. Walker described the situation (in exaggerated terms):

"In that age and time, a Negro doctor was as popular in Negro life as money is in business. With `Dr.' before a man's name, he immediately became the community leader, the outstanding figure that received the honor, respect, and admiration of the entire populace. Everybody looked up to him and felt complimented to pay homage to him. Negro men accepted the ideas and thoughts of the colored doctors in all things as right and final, and Negro women worshiped them. In another field it would take time to build up-in medicine, it was seemingly an overnight affair. …

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