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Under the Knife: How a Wealthy Negro Surgeon Wielded Power in the Jim Crow South

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Hugh Pearson grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, encouraged by his parents to believe that nothing was beyond his reach. If he needed any further inspiration, he could look to his great-uncle, Dr. Joseph Griffin. Although Griffin had stayed in the Deep South, he managed to become a pillar of his community at a time when Afro-Americans—then called Negroes—rarely prospered. He became the first Negro surgeon in south Georgia, donating millions of dollars to Afro-American institutions and building the largest private ...

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Overview

Hugh Pearson grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, encouraged by his parents to believe that nothing was beyond his reach. If he needed any further inspiration, he could look to his great-uncle, Dr. Joseph Griffin. Although Griffin had stayed in the Deep South, he managed to become a pillar of his community at a time when Afro-Americans—then called Negroes—rarely prospered. He became the first Negro surgeon in south Georgia, donating millions of dollars to Afro-American institutions and building the largest private hospital for Afro-Americans in the state. Griffin inspired Louis Sullivan, who later became President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services, to go into medicine and a young Hosea Williams, who grew up to be one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most trusted aides, to aspire to be someone important. He served as a father figure to Donald Hollowell, the lawyer who became a mentor to Vernon Jordan and earned the nickname Georgia's "Mr. Civil Rights" for his legal battles on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other activists.

In Under the Knife, Pearson embarks on a personal journey to learn more about his great-uncle and the rest of the men in his family. What he has uncovered are cold truths about the moral complexities of success and power in a racist society. His uncle's fortune was largely built on performing backdoor abortions for women of all colors, on treating sexually transmitted diseases in Caucasian men too embarrassed to seek help from their regular doctors, and on coercing donations of property from many patients when they couldn't afford to pay their medical bills.

Pearson concludes that the same drive and willingness to bend the rules that helped men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan become wealthy and powerful in less enlightened eras were just as necessary in an ambitious Afro-American manlike his great-uncle, who faced a far more difficult path. Pearson discusses his great-uncle's relationships with southern Jews who befirended him and uncovers the buried history of Afro-American physicians in the Jim Crow era. He dramatizes the struggles of other successful men in his family, charting his foretathers' rise from slavery to ownership of large Georgia farms and flourishing businesses in Jacksonville, Florida, and the accomplishments of his own father, who became the first person of any color in his rural Georgia county to earn a medical degree.

With Under the Knife, Hugh Pearson brings to life the pains and triumphs, as well as the ambiguities and fortitude, involved in the rise of middle-class and wealthy Afro-Americans, and restores the true legacy of an overlooked and oversimplified part of the American experience.

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Editorial Reviews

Berry
Under the Knife is a moving passionate story that set Hugh pearson on a road to self-discovery. that search, that wrestling with his own identity, seems a beginning more than an end.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684846514
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2000
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter 6 Still, as I sat in his apartment and thought back to the front-page column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published by the South's venerable Ralph McGill on Sunday, August 6, 1950, I couldn't resist feeling the same sense of pride I'd felt when I was fourteen and first read an old clipping of that column. McGill was editor of the Constitution. Along with luminaries such as newspaper owner Hodding Carter of Greenville, Mississippi, he had become the pride of liberal Caucasians in the South, the voice of moderation in that ocean of racial apartheid, serfdom, ignorance, insecurity, and caricature that had resulted in its inhabitants becoming the laughingstock of the rest of the country.

"Deep in southwest rural Georgia, not far from Florida's capital city of Tallahassee, I found a meaningful American story," he wrote. He went on to describe that story as the opening of Joseph Griffin's second and larger, more modern hospital, three days earlier. McGill had traveled to Bainbridge to give the keynote address at the dedication ceremony in the town square. Sitting with him on the dais along with Uncle Joe were Bainbridge's mayor (the Caucasian Cheney Griffin), the chairman of its city commission, and the county health commissioner. In the audience that hot sunny day were hundreds of people from the Georgia-Florida-Alabama tristate area.

Things had changed since the 1930s. There were far fewer lynchings. Joe Griffin's importance to the local economy was secure. Respected Caucasians in the region viewed the opening of his new hospital as proof that segregation could work -- a belief they were eager to reinforce, due to fear thatchanges in their way of life would soon be ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court was beginning to hear cases challenging Jim Crow in the region's schools, since the South hadn't lived up to the "equal" part in its separate provisions for Negroes. McGill, too, viewed the opening as a way to prove critics in the North wrong about the way of life practiced in the region. He hadn't yet reached the point where he supported integration. At that time no Caucasian in the South who expected to hold a position of authority for very long supported integration. Support for separate equality was the liberal position. And that was the point of McGill's column, which marveled that my great-uncle had managed to build a well-equipped hospital using a then fabulous quarter of a million dollars of his own money -- a facility where he would invite Caucasian physicians to treat their Negro patients as well.

Nationally syndicated columnist Elmer Wheeler also highlighted the opening in his column entitled "Success Secrets." He wrote:


Recently a friend of mine brought up the old-fashioned philosophical teaser. Does man have free will, or is his will so conditioned by heredity and environment it is all decided for him what he can and cannot do? I did not waste time. I just told him the story of Joseph H. Griffin M.D., Bainbridge, Georgia. Dr. Griffin recently opened his quarter-of-a-million-dollar hospital. He built it himself. No one knows what put the idea in this Negro boy's head that he could rise above the limitations of his environment. Maybe it was because nobody told him about the limitations of heredity and environment and the condition of the human will.


It was those words and the wealth of my great-uncle, and the fact that on that day he opened the largest private hospital for Negroes in the state, and my father's assurances that the racists down there used to say, "Don't bother those Pearsons, they're crazy," and the prestige of the M.D.s after Uncle Joe's, Uncle David's, and my father's names that told me, given a lineage like that, I wasn't supposed to hang out on street corners, I wasn't supposed to speak jive, which by the late '60s, early '70s I had been trying my best to blend in with the rest of the boys in my neighborhood and the inner-city kids bused to our school, as we promoted Black Power in our own misdirected manner.

In the process I ignored the validation of segregation seen in my great-uncle's accomplishment by southern Caucasians of the early 1950s. What mattered more to me was that he had overcome daunting obstacles during a period of what were, from my vantage point, unfathomable racial nightmares. It seemed that even among men in my family with little money, the determination to rise above the circumstances of their environment flamed so intensely you would have suffered first-degree burns if you tried touching it. Every summer our invalid mother took me and my sisters, Carol and Jennifer, by train at first and then by air to Jacksonville, Florida. There at dawn we could hear her father, Crawford Richardson, firing up the engines of his large trucks as he and his crew of men prepared to rise above the circumstances in Jacksonville, and go out and cut down the tall long-leaf pines in north Florida and south Georgia, load the logs on his trucks, and sell them to the pulpwood factories in town. Crawford Richardson, the entrepreneur, dreamed of owning the same type of lumber company Henry Ehrlich owned; for a little while he owned his own sawmill, but was forced to close it before I was born.

Joe Griffin hadn't wanted his kid sister to marry my grandfather, who hailed from the same town where T. V. McCoo practiced medicine, Eufaula, Alabama, just down the road and across the Chattahoochee River from Great-grandfather Griffin's farm in Stewart County, Georgia. Beginning in 1923 Grandmother left the farm every school year and headed for Bainbridge, where she lived with her oldest brother and his wife and newborn daughter, Mary Louise, and attended Hutto High School.

My grandmother watched him get up early in the morning, wash, shave, dress, eat, and trek to his office, then return home in the evening, only to answer patients' telephone calls, after which he ventured out to their homes to treat them, only to return home late at night, retire, and start the process all over again the next morning. She watched one night from her bedroom window as the local Klan burned a cross on his front lawn, necessitating one of the many negotiation sessions that for one reason or another became necessary to maintain that delicate balance in race relations. During the last years of high school in the summers when she returned to the family farm, she began dating Grandfather, who was six years older than she was. He was in the process of stealing her heart from the clutches of a young man in the area named Cornelius Ford, whose older brother had already married her sister Agnes.

In 1927, upon her graduation from high school, Uncle Joe enrolled her in Spelman College in Atlanta, while Grandfather made his way to New York City with one of his two brothers, their intention being to make a go of it far away from the clutches of their cruel father, who used to hang them by their hands from meat hooks and beat them with a leather whip for their teenage transgressions. One day Grandfather finally refused to take it anymore. He grabbed the whip from his father and threatened to kill the man who allegedly had been born to a Negro prostitute in Eufaula, and a Creek Native American she enjoyed regular relations with -- a man whose family had decided not to join the seven-hundred-mile Trail of Tears transporting other Creeks to what became Oklahoma.

Grandfather's mother died while he and his four siblings were young. He was the second oldest and never learned much about her except that she, too, was of mixed heritage, a light-brown-skinned woman whose portrait indicated her black African and Caucasian lineage. Their father supported the family as a sharecropper and then, when the boys became old enough, expected them to get jobs to help support the family, which they did, until that day in 1927 when Crawford and Hartus decided to try making a go of it in distant New York City. Upon arriving they settled in a roominghouse in Harlem. It was the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The neighborhood's streets were packed with Negro migrants from the South -- primarily Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina -- and the West Indies. Jazz bands dazzled Caucasians who ventured to the neighborhood after dark, engaging in what was known as "slumming" at venues such as the Cotton Club (which didn't admit Negro patrons) where café-au-lait showgirls shimmied their hips and shook their fannies to syncopated music. Poets such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and writers such as Jean Toomer and James Weldon Johnson wrote the first significant body of Negro literature. But Grandfather soon left the city. To him its freedom, relative to what he left in the South, wasn't worth a jammed-together existence in packed tenements, or the frigid winter climate, or the menial jobs, or the hustler's rackets necessary for making a living if you had no talent for use in the entertainment industry, or future as a writer, or credentials to pursue what few opportunities there were for Negroes with college and professional degrees.

He soon returned to Eufaula, then headed for Atlanta to propose marriage to Grandmother. To the dismay of her family -- brother Joe in particular -- she accepted his offer, while they pleaded with her to ask herself what kind of future was possible with a man who hadn't attended college and had no plans to do so. She dropped out of Spelman and eloped with Grandfather, after which they settled in Jacksonville. Grandfather, who had learned how to work on automobiles during the brief time he had lived in Troy, New York, found a job as a mechanic. Their first child, Edith, my mother, was born Christmas Eve 1930. After her there would be four more -- Crawford Jr. in 1932, Elaine in 1937, Barbara and her twin sister, who would die shortly after birth, in 1940.

As so often happens in families, with the arrival of the first child, so, too, arrived the mending of relations between Grandmother and her oldest brother and the rest of her family. As her shy oldest daughter, mischievous son, and soon-to-be-mischievous second daughter grew, Grandmother brought them west to visit their Griffin side, including Uncle Joe in Bainbridge. On one visit in 1939 the two families attended church at Nelson Chapel A.M.E. By then, her oldest brother had weathered other racial incidents through the years, besides the cross burning she had seen on his front lawn when she was a teenager. Two years earlier there had been the Willie Reid incident, in which Reid was killed in jail under mysterious circumstances while awaiting trial for allegedly raping, then murdering a Caucasian woman, after which a mob spirited his remains from a local Negro funeral home, burned them in the local high school football field, and dragged his charred corpse past the Griffin home under threat of violence to all the town's "uppity nigras." After tempers cooled, Uncle Joe helped patch things up.

As part of the delicate balance in race relations he helped work out, he sought donations periodically to Negro community groups from respected Caucasians in town. On one such occasion he approached the local sheriff, S. W. Martin, who also happened to be a member of the Klan. Martin told him that through the Klan he would be glad to see to it that a donation of $150 was made to Nelson Chapel (a then significant sum) if the congregation allowed one of their representatives to speak. "Give us an opportunity to express ourselves," Martin told him. "We aren't your enemies, we are your friends. We'll have one of our men come and read a prepared statement."

So that Sunday in 1939, while Grandmother and her children and her brother and his family sat in Nelson Chapel with the rest of the congregation, the Klan representatives, including the deputy sheriff and a local attorney, approached Uncle Joe, who spoke to them outside, then escorted them to the pulpit where they made their donation and read their "conciliatory statement" making it clear that as long as certain lines weren't crossed, everything between the "races" would be fine. Dazzled by the relative influence and opulence of his uncle's life, Crawford Jr. wished he could be his son. He had seen his real father struggle with his dreams. In a few years he would see him act on those dreams.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Grandfather obtained a job as an aircraft engine mechanic at the large naval air base near Jacksonville. At the same time he launched his first entrepreneurial effort. He purchased two large flatbed trucks, nailed benches to them, and began transporting the Negro workers back and forth between their homes and the base. He also used the trucks on weekends to transport Negroes in Jacksonville back and forth between the city and the nearby Negro oceanfront resort at Fernandina Beach. The new enterprise resulted in his earning his first significant sum of money. When the war ended, he used the extra money he had earned to open a sawmill. In the mill he cut the lumber to be used to build the nightclub he intended to open.

A year later he opened the club. He named it the Rainbow Inn. He employed four people, including a cook. Because he couldn't obtain a liquor license he sold liquor under the table. To ensure he'd have no trouble doing so he paid the requisite bribes to two local police officers. At the Rainbow Inn customers could eat, drink, dance, or get romantic in one of two transient rooms he built on the side of the club. With his sawmill and club prospering he began making lots of money. But he was a poor money manager and was not callous enough to resist acquaintances who asked him for financial favors. As a result of his muscular, sculpted physical form, handsome face, and charismatic personality, he was popular -- especially with the women. He had his affairs, just like Grandmother's brothers, including Uncle Joe, had their affairs. But he and Grandmother stayed together. Crawford Richardson was a very generous man. Every Christmas season he'd go to the farmers' market, purchase bags of fruit, then go door-to-door in his neighborhood giving the fruit away.

He was a proud man, too. One day he was heading home from his sawmill when he came upon one of his trucks stranded on the highway with a flat tire, its driver standing by helplessly. He stopped, got out, gave his employee the keys to his car, and told him to go back to the mill and retrieve a replacement tire. In the meantime he would sit there with the truck waiting for his return. While he waited two police officers drove up. They told him to move the truck off the highway. He replied that he couldn't do so until the replacement tire arrived, because if he tried moving the heavy truck with the flat tire still on it, the truck's weight would ruin the tire rim. The officers considered that answer to be too uppity for a Negro. He continued to make his case. So they handcuffed and arrested him.

On the way to the station house they pummeled him with racial insults. After arriving, they booked him and threw him in a cell with another Negro, at which point they decided to have some fun by placing bets on which one of the big muscular "coons" was the better fighter. They unlocked the cell door and took the two prisoners to a fenced-in yard in the back. With guns drawn to prevent their escape, on their signal they made the other prisoner lunge for Grandfather. The two men struggled. They wrestled. They beat each other with fists. First one got the upper hand, then the other. Finally Grandfather won. The losing officers didn't like it that the uppity troublemaker had gotten the better of the other "coon" -- the other "rooster" they had placed their bets on. They decided to teach him a lesson. They put the handcuffs back on Grandfather and proceeded to beat and kick him so severely that they split his left jaw open all the way up to his ear. The next day after an employee paid his fine he was released. His jaw was sewn up. When he returned home, the sight of him traumatized his family. He assured them he was fine.

But things weren't fine. Grandfather soon lost his right to police protection assuring his ability to sell liquor under the table at his nightclub. As a result the club began losing patrons. His sawmill business started experiencing difficulties. Simultaneously, Mother was finishing Stanton High School. By the time she graduated in 1949 her father's finances were in such disarray he was unable to send her to Hampton Institute in Virginia, the college of her choice. Instead, upon graduating from Stanton she enrolled in nursing school in Augusta, Georgia, at the Medical College of Georgia's nursing school division for Negroes. Augusta sits along the banks of the Savannah River, about 125 miles upstream from the city of Savannah, which Mother periodically visited to have fun with her Griffin family cousins Mary Agnes and Robie; they were attending the same college Uncle Joe had attended, now called Savannah State.

By the time Mother graduated from nursing school in 1951, R.N. degree in hand, both her father's sawmill and nightclub had closed and he was using his trucks to cut and haul timber to sell to the pulpwood factories in Jacksonville. By then her rebellious brother Crawford Jr. had left home before finishing high school. To the consternation of Grandfather, he lied about his age and enlisted in the air force. Mother obtained a job at University Hospital of what was the Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It would be her first experience traveling north. It would also be her first experience tending the needs of Caucasian patients. Late one night a dying woman signaled the nurses' station. Being the only on-duty nurse who was free, Mother went to see what she could do for her. When she arrived, the woman responded, "I want a real nurse!" as in a Caucasian one. Offended, but not knowing what else to do, Mother swallowed the insult and tended to the needs of the dying woman anyway.

Two years later she found a nursing position with more opportunity. It was at Hubbard Hospital in Nashville. By that time Hubbard was a far different place from the days when Joseph Griffin attended medical school there. In 1931, using money donated primarily by the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Julius Rosenwald philanthropic fund, and Mrs. George Eastman, both the hospital and Meharry were moved to a new physical plant on the north side of Nashville, across the street from Fisk University. The new Hubbard was twice as large as the original hospital, but still small with only 180 beds. Upon arriving on its wards Mother met Father, who, as a third-year medical student at Meharry, had just begun his clinical rotations. Prior to gaining admission, he left Grandfather Pearson's farm outside of Glenwood, Georgia, to attend the nearest Negro high school, which was thirty-five miles away in the town of Dublin. He boarded with relatives while attending. Upon graduating valedictorian of his class he returned to the family farm for a year to help Grandfather. Then he headed for Paine College in Augusta. Shortly after he enrolled, the U.S. entered World War II. Father was drafted into the army but soon received a medical deferment because he had flat feet. He returned to Paine. By contrast his older brother Nathan saw combat duty, including landing on the beaches of Normandy on D day in 1944, the year Father graduated from Paine.

After earning his bachelor's degree with honors, Father taught science courses at Boggs Academy, a private Negro high school outside of Augusta, and later at another Negro high school in the town of Perry. Wearing his restless ambition everywhere he went, he demonstrated a baffling frugality to his friends, while simultaneously cultivating a reputation as something of a lady's man. To take women out on dates, he borrowed cars -- from his sister Lavester's husband who taught college in nearby Fort Valley, from friends who wondered why he wouldn't just buy one since by then Negro teachers -- in fact, the bulk of the Negro middle class in the South -- certainly earned enough money to afford homes and automobiles.

He'd tell all who asked that he refused to buy a car because he was saving his money so that he could one day attend medical school. What a pipe dream, plenty told him. In some ways it was. The college he had attended was of poor quality. He had been ill-informed about where to go, the blame falling not only on himself for lack of thorough investigation of college choices, but also on the shoulders of the postman who delivered mail to the family farm. With each report of high school excellence the postman urged Father to attend Paine College, a school supported by his church denomination. For plenty of people in the rural South any college was a good place to go. But Paine hardly measured up to Howard, or Morehouse, or Fisk, or Talladega (where sister Lavester had gone), or Tugaloo, or Lincoln University in Pennsylvania -- the Negro colleges with the best premedical programs, their graduates making up disproportionate shares of the medical students at Howard and Meharry. Things were much different from when Joseph Griffin attended medical school. Given the explosion in medical knowledge that had taken place over the intervening forty years, entry requirements were much stiffer and course loads much heavier. In an average year Meharry accepted only one in five applicants to its medical school (at a time when the national average for acceptance of medical school applicants in all medical schools was a little better than one in four applicants [3.7], all due to dramatically increased competition with World War II veterans). Each summer between teaching high school science, Father traveled to Atlanta to take summer courses at Atlanta University to bolster his qualifications for admission.

People in his vicinity detected the scent of his upward mobility before even seeing or hearing him. Then upon seeing him, they noticed a man who dressed and groomed himself immaculately. When he spoke they noticed that he had ridded himself of all vestiges of a southern accent. He mastered the King's English: not a trace of a double negative or an "I axed" or the improper use of plurals expected of Negroes flew off his vocal cords. Short of the most blatant violations, such as venturing where Jim Crow didn't allow Negroes, he found other ways to circumvent the etiquette of Negro subordination -- for instance, as mentioned earlier, forgoing the hats men usually wore daily back then so that he didn't have to remove his, as Negroes were expected to do in the presence of Caucasians, or after being asked a question by a Caucasian, just as his sister Lavester did, answering with "I did," or "I did not," rather than finishing statements off with the usual "Suhs" and "Ma'ams." When he presented himself to the Caucasian administrator of the Perry, Georgia, schools who made all final decisions on hiring teachers, the man didn't know what to make of him. After the interview he asked Father to leave the room. Then he addressed the Negro principal who had suggested Father for employment: "Well, if you want him, I'll hire him. But he's not going to stay. Little towns like this don't keep fellas like him for very long."

The statement was prophetic. Within five years, Perry bid him farewell because he was finally headed for Meharry. The medical school was in the same precarious financial situation it had been in since its founding. By then it trained almost half of all Negro medical doctors, and the majority of Negro physicians who practiced in the South. By the latter half of the 1920s Howard's medical school had caught up to equal the number of M.D.s Meharry awarded each year, and in many years it graduated even more, in a Washington, D.C., setting where things weren't as good as they could be but better than the obstacles faced by Meharry in Nashville. And more Caucasian medical schools had opened their doors to Negroes, admitting a token one or two per year. By the end of the 1940s they were training 10 percent of all Negro physicians, though most still admitted none. A total of between 130 and 150 Negro physicians were graduating among the 6,000 M.D.s awarded annually, leading to a national average of one Negro physician for every 3,500 Negroes, compared to one Caucasian physician for every 1,100 Caucasians. Below the Potomac and Ohio rivers, Meharry was the only medical school a Negro could attend. Besides 180-bed Hubbard Hospital, its clinical facilities included the 400-bed Waverly Hills Sanatorium near Louisville (where students observed TB cases, an arrangement that by 1953 would change when they would be sent to the 400-bed West Tennessee Tuberculosis Hospital in Memphis); the surgical service at the 52-bed Taborian Hospital in Mount Bayou, Mississippi; the surgical service at 165-bed John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee; and the neuropsychiatric service at 685-bed Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St . Louis. Such were the precarious conditions under which the school operated, necessitating that it send its students far afield to acquire a decent level of clinical exposure.

In 1948 it had teetered on the brink of closing. A near $500,000 gap between its income and operating expenses had been amassed the previous fiscal year. This was a larger gap than philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller and Kellogg foundations were willing to continue closing. A number of options were entertained for how to keep the school open. One was to move it to Texas to serve Negroes of that state from a new facility built at Prairie View A&M University, a Negro college in a town of that same name near Houston. Another proposal was to move the school to St. Louis from which all of the departments at Homer G. Phillips Hospital would serve as a clinical teaching facility for the medical school. A third proposal was to move the school to Oakland, California, under the auspices of the Kaiser Foundation. And the fourth proposal was to build a new 400- to 600-bed Veterans Administration hospital for Negro veterans next to the campus, bolstering its clinical facilities and adding federal funding to defray the school's expenses. All four of the proposals would go nowhere.

The best solution, it was decided, was direct state or federal support to the existing facility. But federal support was blocked by congressmen in nonsouthern states who felt that it would be unfair to their taxpayers to support Meharry since Negro students could apply to their state medical schools, albeit with poor chances of admission. Besides that, Howard was still federally supported. And they saw no need for the federal government to support two predominantly Negro medical schools. The only alternative left for Meharry was to obtain support from a consortium of fourteen southern states that barred entry of Negroes into their medical schools. The board of trustees of Meharry voted to offer the school to those states as their training facility for Negro physicians, but with the stipulation that the board continue to control policy at the school. In February 1948 the governors of the southern states met in Tallahassee and agreed to the plan. It called for every Negro student from each state accepted at Meharry to be reimbursed the difference between the cost of tuition, room, and board at Meharry and the same costs at their state-supported medical schools. The funds Meharry received from the arrangement helped save the school.

At the same time it continued practices such as hiring Caucasian adjunct faculty members from crosstown Vanderbilt University Medical School to augment its skeletal staff and bolster its creditability. By contrast, Vanderbilt's medical school hired no Negro physicians. And many of the Vanderbilt adjuncts were paid more than Negro faculty who were teaching at Meharry full-time. This caused resentment, rage, and decreased morale among Negro faculty, many of whom took their anger out on the medical students by subjecting them to stiff unrelenting exams, and educational exercises in the clinical settings that were far more rigid and authoritarian than they needed to be. It wasn't unusual for Meharry students to be flunked out by unnecessarily harsh exams featuring minutiae that wouldn't be seen on national board tests. The same occurred at Howard. By contrast, most Caucasian medical schools did their best to graduate all of their matriculants. It was as though Meharry faculty were saying to their students, "Somebody's going to respect me fully, damn it. And that somebody is going to be you!" Though to some extent most medical schools suffered and still suffer from a boot-camp atmosphere, "boot camp" tended to be worst of all at Meharry and Howard.

In addition, many medical professors at Meharry compensated for their lower salaries and esteem in the American medical community by pursuing economic gain through seeing as many patients as they could in their private practices, which had the added side effect of causing research activity to suffer. Of course greed was hardly the exclusive preserve of a handful of Negro professors in the academic medical establishment or Negro physicians as a whole. But the desire for money and the relative independence and prestige money could bring often took on a higher relative importance among Negro physicians than others. The material things money could buy were a salve to place on the psychic wounds inflicted by a segregated, racist world. Upon graduating, then fulfilling internships and residencies at Hubbard or elsewhere, Meharry students could either buy into this obsession or ignore it. A large number would choose to buy into it.


By the time he was to receive his M.D. in May 1955, Father was engaged to marry Mother. Every commencement season, as at other institutions, alumni attended to celebrate the anniversary of their graduation year. And as at most other schools the highest alumni class attendance usually took place in five-year intervals from the date of graduation. That same year was the occasion of Uncle Joe's fortieth reunion. It was also the year in which Marvin Griffin, the scion of Bainbridge's political and newspaper publishing family, the Caucasian Griffins, became governor of Georgia.

Griffin had been elected on a platform calling for all-out war on the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. He promised that rather than integrate Georgia schools he would pursue a policy of upgrading the racially separate facilities to make the equal part in "separate but equal" have real meaning. In line with such thinking Meharry was committed to ensuring the financial support of the consortium of southern states that had met and agreed to support the school in 1948 in order to avoid integration of their respective medical schools. In the eyes of Meharrians it wasn't a matter of supporting segregation. It was a matter of pragmatism and survival. They hoped to see segregation end one day. But knowing the resistance of southern Caucasians to the idea and the need for Negro physicians to be educated somewhere other than Howard, they took support for the survival of their school from anywhere it was available.

Strange bedfellows scratched each other's backs. For the 1955 Meharry commencement Governor Griffin sent a letter to the president of Meharry, Harold D. West, praising the work being done in the recently built fifty-bed hospital owned and operated by the Negro Griffin in his hometown, a letter that was read at the alumni banquet. West wrote back to Governor Griffin: "Dr. Griffin's work is typical of the kind of thing Meharry graduates are doing throughout the South...I am sure this points up the importance of this institution to the southern area in particular and to the nation in general."

Uncle Joe couldn't have been happier to have the letter read in front of his classmates and others. It was all part of the preening they did in front of one another, showing up in expensive sharkskin suits, driving Cadillac Fleetwoods and Lincoln Continentals and Buick Roadmasters. He preened most of all. Mother introduced him to her fiancé. He heartily shook Father's hand and asked him what he planned to do after completing his internship at St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing, Michigan. Father told him he didn't know, but that in any case he planned to take the Georgia State Medical Board so that he could practice in his home state if he chose to do so. And even if he didn't return to Georgia, having the license would enable him to prescribe medication for relatives who became ill.

Uncle Joe told him to consider coming to Bainbridge. He also told him that since he, Joe Griffin, was such an influential man he could make a few phone calls and see about ensuring that Father would pass the state medical board. Mother advised Father to decline the invitation because the last thing he needed was to be beholden to her uncle. A classmate of his, Carl Gordon, who was from Albany, revealed to him a good reason to decline the invitation to practice with Uncle Joe, too. So did Uncle Joe's brother, Uncle David. After his younger brother graduated from Hutto High School in Bainbridge, Joe had sent David to Morehouse College, then on to Meharry, where he received his M.D. in 1942. After that he completed an internship at Hubbard Hospital, then a residency in obstetrics and gynecology, at which point he served in the Army Medical Corps, caring for the gynecological problems of the wives of army personnel and delivering their babies. Then he returned to Bainbridge to practice with his older brother, who allowed him almost no breathing room. This eventually resulted in his striking out on his own, first to nearby Thomasville, then to Brunswick, Georgia. "Joe's too autocratic," he told Father about the possibility of coming to Bainbridge. "You'll never be your own man." Father took all of the advice he received from Mother, Carl Gordon, and Uncle David.

He and Mother married on June 22, 1955, in the living room of her parents' Jacksonville home. Mother's sister Elaine was maid of honor and her only attendant. Mother and Father honeymooned in Atlanta. Then they were off to Lansing in their new '55 Chevrolet Bel Air, Father's first automobile, which he purchased upon graduating at the age of thirty-four. After completing his internship, Father passed the Indiana State Medical Board, then settled temporarily in Seymour, Indiana, to replace a physician on vacation. It was there that on August 24, 1956, their first child, Carol, was born. Then it was on to Butlerville, Indiana, for a temporary job as staff physician at Muscatatuk School, then on to Fort Wayne to replace Dr. Caesar Marshall while he and his family vacationed. And when Dr. Marshall returned, he helped Father set up a permanent practice in Fort Wayne, then aided Mother on September 25, 1957, in the delivery room of St. Joseph's Hospital, when I was ushered into the world.

Meanwhile, Mother's sister Elaine had finished high school the same year Mother and Father were married. Later that summer, before attending Florida A&M, she went to Bainbridge to work at Griffin Hospital and Clinic where she began training as a nurse under Blanche Campbell, who was responsible for training all of the hospital's nurses under a specified program. Then after attending Florida A&M for one year she returned to Griffin Hospital and Clinic where she worked from 1956 to 1958, after which she entered a formal training program for her R.N. degree at Lincoln Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. Aunt Barbara graduated from high school months after I was born and went off to attend college at Florida A&M, then later earn an E.D.D. degree with a concentration in history from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, only to return to Florida A&M to teach history and eventually chair its history department.

Many years later, after interviewing people for her book about Uncle Joe and Griffin Hospital, this is what she wrote about his rise to influence and what he did for his patients. When it came to how he financed the construction and equipping of the quarter-of-a-million-dollar Griffin Hospital and Clinic with his own money, Uncle Joe told her: "I invested in government bonds over a period of years. And as we needed the bonds to finance construction, we got them." As for how he acquired the numerous homes and other extensive real estate holdings he amassed over the years, that was said to have been done simply through wise investing of what money his patients could afford to pay him. "During the summer months, he would rise early, put on his overalls, brogan shoes, and flop hat, and work with his crew, painting houses and mending roofs until 7:00 p.m. Then he would go home, take a bath and go to the office," Uncle David attested. The houses were then rented out to local residents. They included a row of small dwellings right across the street from the Griffin home that under local law Uncle Joe was allowed to rent only to Caucasians.

Uncle Joe was described as always kind and generous. He was described as extremely capable, and willing to treat patients' ailments that other physicians refused to touch. By the 1950s the Caucasian-owned Bainbridge Memorial Hospital had opened only its basement to Negro patients, and at Riverside Hospital, Negroes were consigned to an old house next to the regular hospital (from where, if they needed surgery they were carried to the main building in a stretcher, up the fire escape to the second floor where the operating room was located). By contrast, at Griffin Hospital they entered a facility that treated them with respect on spacious first- and second-floor wards. In addition, on the second floor there were two private suites, one with a terrace.

"You felt Dr. Griffin was your friend," recalled patient Ira Dean Long. "He made rounds three times a day," attested patient Susan Mention. "And even though he was busy, he would sit for a few minutes and talk to you." "If you were dissatisfied with the service of a member of the staff, you would only have to tell him and your problem would be solved," stated patient Josie Williams. Reported Uncle David: "He displayed the same kind of attitude and rendered the same kind of services to the 'little man,' the downtrodden, and the abused as he rendered to his more refined, more educated patients. He made no distinction between rich and poor. It was nothing to see him hugging, kissing, and flattering someone he knew in the lobby, even if the person had a mouth full of snuff or tobacco."

Aunt Elaine recalled accompanying him on Wednesdays, his house call days. Once she went along for a visit to a local woman known as Granny: "The road didn't extend all the way to Granny's house. We had to park the car and walk across a field. I was completely unaware of the patient's condition. I thought we had come to administer some routine medication. But when we got there, [he] gave Granny an intravenous infusion, a process which is normally performed in a hospital. Obviously he had planned to do this when he left. All of the equipment that he needed was there. She had an IV pole in her house that he had placed there for that purpose. I soon found out that this was one of his weekly visits."

And he continued to be daring with regard to challenging the social mores of the region if he thought it was medically necessary. Since he knew his surgical limitations, he would call in the appropriate specialist if the medical skills of others were required. One such case involved an elderly woman at the hospital who fell and broke her femur, necessitating that a Caucasian orthopedic surgeon from Tallahassee come to Griffin Hospital and operate on her. During the operation the orthopedist experienced difficulty in placing a pin in the patient's thigh to secure the broken bone. Uncle Joe, who was assisting him, became irritated, grabbed the instruments from the other surgeon, and inserted the pin himself.

Throughout his practice Uncle Joe was said to continue to allow his patients to pay whatever they could afford to pay. He was said to have continued to accept gifts in lieu of cash, gifts that he divided among the needy. He was said to have hired many Negroes to work for him, allowing them to perform intelligent rather than demeaning work. He was said to have once provided employment to a woman who had suffered a brain injury as a result of an automobile accident, allowing her to work in the hospital kitchen and live for free in the nurses' quarters he had constructed in back of the hospital. Aunt Elaine attested that she saw him "turn what were considered to be helpless drug addicts, alcoholics, and other outcasts into clean-shaven and respectable hospital orderlies, maintenance workers, chauffeurs, and cooks." The book contained the stories of his paying off the $18,000 mortgage on the Negro-owned farm that was to be foreclosed on and his making a $91,000 loan to the Negro farmer whom Caucasian businessmen didn't want to purchase strategically located property. Uncle Joe was said to have made it possible for numerous Negroes to purchase land, then demonstrated tremendous tolerance for those who were slow to pay him back, only occasionally foreclosing. The book stated that at one time he owned the liens on all the Negro-owned taxis in town; it stated that he purchased new cars for individuals and allowed them to pay him back rather than the dealer. It stated that he paid the mortgages on the homes of two Negro teachers who lost their jobs and in addition provided them and their families with food and clothing until they found new jobs.

He was said to have kept up with the latest medical developments even as he tended his busy medical practice and the other needs of Negroes in Bainbridge. This included attending the annual John A. Andrew Clinical Seminars at Tuskegee. The Andrew Seminars in the various medical specialties, held each April beginning in 1921, were perhaps the most impressive of any Negro medical body in the country, bringing together for one week experts in medical specialties of all races to discuss a range of difficult medical cases for the benefit of Negro physicians throughout the South and some from around the country. In 1937 Uncle Joe served as president of the society that sponsored the annual clinics. In 1950, while traveling with three other physicians with the intention of driving all night to attend and present a paper at the clinic, Dr. Charles Drew, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Howard University Medical School, the most prominent Negro surgeon of his generation, and the first person to successfully preserve blood plasma, was killed in an auto accident along a highway in Allamance County, North Carolina. Besides attending the Andrews Clinics, in 1943 Uncle Joe cofounded the Southwestern Medical Association, composed of Negro physicians in the southwestern Georgia, southeastern Alabama, and north Florida tristate area, and invited prominent physicians to address the society, including at Johnson Memorial Hospital, then Griffin Hospital and Clinic.

In November 1961 the renowned Negro newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier assigned its noted reporter Trezzvant W. Anderson to write an article on Griffin Hospital and Clinic. The Courier had a national circulation of over 100,000. From the beginning of the twentieth century, along with the Chicago Defender, it had smoked out countless cases of injustices committed against Negroes across the country. The Courier piece was the second major article on the hospital. Several months after it opened there had been a large photo spread commemorating it in a magazine called Our World. It showed Uncle Joe in action in the wards of the hospital. It showed him meeting with architect Julian Kwilecki, Bertram Ehrlich's first cousin, about the layout of the hospital. It showed him in his living room with Great-grandmother Griffin, noting how proud she was of her oldest son.

Anderson and a Courier photographer gave the hospital similar treatment. On the cover of the November 4, 1961, issue of the Courier was a small photo of Uncle Joe, along with two larger photos about other subjects of that issue, which featured a tabloid layout. One was of four five-year-old Negro boys in armed services uniforms, winners of a contest at the Texas State Fair. The other was of the winner of a beauty contest in New York City presented for the benefit of the United Negro College Fund. Headlines read "Courier Reporter, Arrested and Jailed on Route 40, Writes: 'I Died a Little'"; "Westley W. Law Is Back on Job!"; and next to Uncle Joe's photo, the words "Courier Exclusives: A Giant of a Man Is Dr. Joseph Griffin, Georgia's Legendary Miracle Medico." To read about him you were directed to turn to pages 16 and 17 of the second section. The other exclusive was the story "Berlin and the Negro G.I.'s."

Inside this issue was also an article about the legal issues surrounding the student lunch counter civil rights sit-ins challenging segregation. The following week the case was to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. There was also an article detailing the use of violence by Caucasians in Mississippi to prevent Negroes from registering to vote. The article on the arrest of a Courier reporter told of the arrest of Evelyn Cunningham, who joined a group of prominent Negroes in their decision to emulate the Negro students who had started the Freedom Rides seeking to integrate interstate travel throughout the South. Cunningham and four NAACP officials, including New York City attorney Percy Sutton, headed out of New York City and stopped at a restaurant in Rosedale, Maryland, just north of Baltimore. Upon seeking service the waitress refused them, after which they were arrested and jailed. In the same issue, Anderson wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., presenting President Kennedy with a detailed blueprint of how he could legally end segregation in the South. And on the editorial page columnist John McGray asked, "Should Negroes Leave the South?"

When you turned to the second section Uncle Joe provided his answer -- a resounding no. "You can make it if you only try down here," he told Anderson. The article featured accompanying photos of Uncle Joe in the fifty-bed hospital and detailed its motorized beds, which at that time were "an unusual item in any hospital." It told of how there were TVs in every room, air-conditioned wards, anesthetic machines, top-flight X-ray equipment, a modern laboratory equipped with the finest equipment for blood chemistry, a blood bank, an EKG machine, an operating room, an obstetrical delivery room...The top-flight medical equipment was bought between the time the hospital opened and the appearance of the Courier article. Uncle Joe purchased it with his own money, raising the value of the hospital to half a million dollars, which confirmed what Aunt Elaine later said in Aunt Barbara's book. The article noted that some of the equipment in Griffin Hospital and Clinic was more advanced than that in the Caucasian hospitals in town. A machine called an autoclave sometimes broke down at Bainbridge Memorial Hospital, necessitating that Bainbridge personnel bring their instruments over to Griffin Hospital to be sterilized.

All of this was quite amazing, considering the difficulty a handful of other Negro physicians in the South had during those days of segregation equipping their own small hospitals. There was, for example, the McClendon Medical Clinic in Atlanta, owned by Dr. F. Earl McClendon. In 1948 he approached a number of Atlanta philanthropists, including Robert W. Woodruff, the chairman of the board of Coca-Cola, with the goal of obtaining contributions for $5,000 worth of equipment for his hospital. By the fall of 1950, the same year Griffin Hospital and Clinic opened two hundred miles to the south, McClendon was still seeking ways to finance the purchase of equipment for his hospital. During that period the Atlanta area had only 391 hospital beds available to its 142,855 Negroes (compared to 1,459 hospital beds for its 356,254 Caucasians). Of those beds, 304 were in the segregated Negro wards of city-owned Grady Memorial Hospital where, given the quality of city hospital wards, no middle-class or well-to-do Negro wanted to go. And at that time no Negro physicians could practice at Grady, leaving only eighty-seven available hospital beds spread among three private hospitals for Atlanta's thirty-seven Negro physicians and its middle-class Negro populace. (A few years later the city decided to construct 120-bed Hughes Spaulding Pavilion for use by Negro physicians, a facility that would never live up to plans.) At the time Griffin Hospital and Clinic opened in August 1950, none of those private hospitals were as large and well-equipped (though by 1958, two of them, McClendon and Harris hospitals, would surpass Griffin Hospital's patient-bed capacity by twenty-five and ten beds, respectively). Griffin Hospital and Clinic was located in a south Georgia county that didn't even have as many people in its entirety as Atlanta had Negroes -- where if you totaled the entire population within a fifty-mile radius you could come up with a number equaling the Negro population of the Atlanta area. Uncle Joe's feat was quite amazing, as was the wealth he accumulated among Negro patients in an era before Medicaid and Medicare. How was it that he could have been so selfless, yet have become so rich?

It was a question I had sometimes wondered about, but never really asked myself seriously prior to meeting Mr. Ehrlich. But now as our interview continued Bertram Ehrlich provided an answer.


He had his patients take security deeds out on their property to pay their medical bills. That was their collateral. And if they didn't keep up payments he foreclosed. That's how he got such a tremendous amount of land -- he took it away from his patients. That's the general opinion. And he got in a little trouble with the abortions, too. Young white girls from FSU [Florida State University] started coming up to his hospital overnight. It was a very suspicious deal. I don't know how he expected to get away with anything like that, but he was perfectly capable of performing the service.


Near the end of her book Aunt Barbara mentioned in passing that Uncle Joe had been charged with performing abortions and she reported the outcome of the charges. But the implication was that maybe (not definitely, but maybe) he performed a handful over the course of his long career, and no more than that. There was nothing at all in her book about the security deeds his patients who owned property were required to take out on that property as collateral for paying their medical bills if they couldn't pay right away. In one fell swoop an entirely new and more plausible vista on his life opened up to me.

Copyright © 2000 by Hugh Pearson

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