An incurable skin condition: Black physicians in the Jim Crow South

Thomas Joseph Ward

Abstract

Too often the perception of southern African Americans in the period after slavery and before the civil rights movement is monolithic--that of the poor sharecropper. While this image is accurate, as many southern blacks of this period were tied to both land and in debt, this should not be the only image historians portray. Segregation also provided for a small but important professional class among African Americans in the South, of which physicians were an integral part. While small in number, physicians exerted a disproportionate amount of influence over their communities as medical practitioners, business professionals, and civic leaders. They provided both services and jobs for the black community; they emerged as social, economic, and civic leaders in black neighborhoods; and, perhaps most importantly, physicians were a constant source of pride to their communities. They were success stories for a people living in a time and place who knew few successes. The purpose of this study is threefold. First, it seeks to fill gaps in the current literature on the black professional class during the Jim Crow era. Despite the importance that black physicians played in southern communities, their story has slipped through the cracks, ignored by both medical historians who focus on the achievements of white doctors, and scholars of African-American history who concentrate primarily on the South's impoverished black masses. The second reason for this study is therefore to tell the fascinating story of these doctors, whose experiences were different from both the South's black masses and its white physicians. Finally, this is a class and community study as much as it is a medical history. It seeks to understand the impact black physicians had, or did not have, on their communities--how they combated both disease and racism, how they acted as community leaders, and how they served as intermediaries with the white community. This study explores the relationship between black physicians as an educated elite and the black masses among whom they lived and worked. In doing so it hopes to shed some light on the delicate relationship between race and class in American society.