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Beside the Troubled Waters: A Black Doctor Remembers Life, Medicine, and Civil Rights in an Alabama Town

Beside the Troubled Waters: A Black Doctor Remembers Life, Medicine, and Civil Rights in an Alabama Town

by Sonnie Wellington Hereford

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Beside the Troubled Waters is a memoir by an African American physician in Alabama whose story in many ways typifies the lives and careers of black doctors in the south during the segregationist era while also illustrating the diversity of the black experience in the medical profession. Based on interviews conducted with Hereford over ten years, the account


Beside the Troubled Waters is a memoir by an African American physician in Alabama whose story in many ways typifies the lives and careers of black doctors in the south during the segregationist era while also illustrating the diversity of the black experience in the medical profession. Based on interviews conducted with Hereford over ten years, the account includes his childhood and youth as the son of a black sharecropper and Primitive Baptist minister in Madison County, Alabama, during the Depression; his education at Huntsville’s all-black Councill School and medical training at Meharry Medical College in Nashville; his medical practice in Huntsville’s black community beginning in 1956; his efforts to overcome the racism he met in the white medical community; his participation in the civil rights movement in Huntsville; and his later problems with the Medicaid program and state medical authorities, which eventually led to the loss of his license.


Hereford’s memoir stands out because of its medical and civil rights themes, and also because of its compelling account of the professional ruin Hereford encountered after 37 years of practice, as the end of segregation and the federal role in medical care placed black doctors in competition with white ones for the first time.

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University of Alabama Press
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Beside the Troubled Waters

A Black Doctor Remembers Life, Medicine, and Civil Rights in an Alabama Town
By Sonnie Wellington Hereford III Jack D. Ellis


Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1721-8

Chapter One

Through a Glass Darkly

I was born on the exact spot where the Dairy Queen stands, out on Max Luther Drive. That's where my house was, the exact spot. The place was in the country back then, north of the city limits, but you wouldn't think so now.

Across the road, right where the Dollar store and the flea market sit, was my grandfather Tom's house, with a barn and a cornfield just beyond it. To the northwest, where red dirt outcroppings dropped off into good bottom land, and where you see a high rise and a cable TV company today, was a cotton field of fifteen acres, and a little farther on, another one of seven acres.

If you walked west, you'd run into a two- lane dirt road known as Blue spring Road, which in the summer, as the trees alongside it grew out, became a one-lane dirt road. There was no Memorial Parkway back then, no trucks, no mini-marts—just our house and two others sitting out in the meadows.

Our place was a sharecropper's house of four rooms, without running water or electricity, no porch or stoop. Everything just opened onto a dirt yard. The house had a kitchen and a fireplace, a storage room, plus two small bedrooms, with me and my brother, Tom, sleeping in one, next to our parents, and my great- grandparents sleeping in the other. It was in this house that I was born, at the hands of a black doctor in town named Claxton Binford, and they tell me it happened in the year 1931, on the seventh day of January at seventeen minutes past 7:00 in the morning.

My daddy was the only child of Annie here ford and Matt Stewart, who lived together for a time and then separated right after he was born. Matt was a fair- skinned man whose people later became one of Madison County's biggest landowning black families. Later on, he married a woman named Ollie, and they had seven or eight kids. Annie ended up marrying a fellow named Tom Johnson—he's the one whose house was across the road from where the Dairy Queen is—and they also had seven or eight children. This meant that Daddy had fifteen or sixteen half brothers and half sisters, though no full brothers or sisters of his own.

I saw people from the Stewart side very little as a boy, and just a few stand out today—people like Aunt Mattie, a schoolteacher, and Aunt Muriel, an insurance writer, who'd go door to door in the black neighborhoods collecting payments for burial and life. Daddy would visit the Stewarts from time to time, but our families generally kept apart.

Daddy was what people called an "outside child," which means he'd been born out of wedlock and raised by his mother's folks. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Sonnie Hereford, the man he always looked on as his daddy. Sonnie Hereford Sr., as people called him, had been born in slavery, just like my great- grandmother Bettie. The story I heard was that he belonged to one of the slaveholding here fords out around Meridianville, but I don't know for sure. Back then, people didn't talk to us children about slavery because it stirred up such bitter memories.

Neither of my great- grandparents could read or write, of course, and had spent their lives working the land. They died a few months apart when I was eight or nine years old, first Grandpa Sonnie and then Grandma Bettie, so my memories of them are dim. I do recall one thing, and that was how Grandpa saved every receipt for every bill he'd ever paid, sticking them on a wire in a spindle attached to the wall. There must have been four or five hundred. The newer ones were white, but toward the middle they'd turned yellow and were brown at the back.

My mother was a Burwell, the daughter of Tom and Elizabeth Burwell of Madison County. Her name was Jannie, and, like Daddy, she was an only child, born before the turn of the century. Her mother, the one I always knew as Grandma Liz, was a Tillman, and Grandpa Tom, the man my brother was named after, was one of four children belonging to Wash and Mollie Burwell, both born in slavery times.

Mama's parents were good people, but they had a lot of problems owing to Tom Burwell's philandering, going off for days at a time. People did give him credit for being a good provider. He made sure his family had plenty of meal and lard and bacon in the house, for which the black community looked on him with more favor than would have been the case. But the marriage came close to falling apart. Once, Grandma Liz walked out on him and took my mother, who was just a teenage girl at the time, up to Memphis, where they worked as maids on a farm. The white owner tried to match up my mother with the lot boy, but Grandma Liz wouldn't allow it, and later on, she came home and made up with Grandpa.

Grandma Liz and Grandpa Tom lived near us, just over Davis hill, but Grandpa passed when I was very young, so my memories of him are pretty faded. He passed in the fall of the year, and what happened was that he'd carried a bale of cotton to the gin and was on his way home, when he stopped by the Madison County fair Grounds, out between Church street and Pulaski Pike, to see the horse races. Black farmers would often do that—stop beside the road and stand in their wagons or look through the big wooden fence around the fairgrounds to see the races—and while Grandpa was watching he suffered some sort of pulmonary hemorrhage.

My brother was walking past the fairgrounds on his way home from school, and he saw the commotion and found that it was his own grandfather who had just died. This was very, very distressing to him, and he ran all the way home to tell everyone what had happened.

Grandma Liz moved in with us after that, and she and I became the best of friends. She was full of fun, and not much bigger than me, and the idea of discipline was usually the furthest thing from her mind. There were exceptions now and then, mostly from the fact that my brother, Tom, who was seven years older than me, had gotten his finger in her eye so bad [endeared himself to her] that she just thought he couldn't do any wrong. Once, he jumped on top of me, and when he heard Grandma Liz coming, he pulled me over on top of him, like I'd started it.

And in she came, for someone so small, she had a powerful right arm.

"Get off that boy!" Whump!

"I said, get off that boy!" Whump!

There I was, Tom working on me from below and Grandma Liz working on me from above, and I hadn't done a thing.

But most of the time, whatever I did was all right by her, and whatever she did was all right by me. And she loved to fish. We made our own hooks, we dug our own bait, and we'd go fishing two or three times a week. After she passed—I must have been seventeen or eighteen years old—I never felt like going fishing again.

My mother was a good woman, too, who'd gotten a ninth- or tenth- grade education at Oakwood Academy, which was a black seventh- day Adventist school near her parents' house in the Indian Creek community and which some times allowed non- Adventist children to enroll. Mama was a strict Primitive Baptist all her life and served as a Mother of the Church. This was like a deaconess, you know, and you were supposed to be an example to the younger women, help with conferences, help with the foot washings, cook the unleavened bread, that sort of thing. Women could be seen everywhere in the work of the church when I was growing up, except in the pulpit. Not once in my life did I ever see a woman standing in a pulpit, not until the civil rights movement, when a lady from Chattanooga came down to speak in support of our sit- in campaign.

At some point, my mother had picked up the nickname Big Mama, and it sure did fit her. For one thing, she'd early on adopted the Bible's teaching about not sparing the rod. She'd say, "I'm gonna whup you for what you did, and when your daddy gets home, he's gonna whup you again."

Back then, even the neighbors would whup you if they caught you doing something really bad. They'd say, "Miss Jannie, I had to whup that boy for doing such and such," and nobody ever complained or said the neighbors had no right.

Now, Daddy was a very stern person, a disciplinarian, but he was all right as long as we did our chores and did our schoolwork. He had managed to get a tenth- grade education—I think from the laboratory school out at Alabama A&M—which, in those days, for a black person, was like having a master's degree. he'd tell us, "Make sure you learn, make sure you acquire a skill so you won't have to spend the rest of your lives working for Mr. Charlie." That's what he called the white man—Mr. Charlie.

Daddy had been drafted into the army during World War I and sent to France. Once in awhile, I'd hear him talking about it, about one thing or another that had happened over there, somebody hurt or killed by a shell, and how hard things had been in the trenches. One day, I heard him telling someone how if a black soldier was thinking of marrying a French girl, the officers would tell him that when the war was over, he'd have to divorce her, or else he'd have to stay in France. Bringing her home wasn't one of the choices.

As to how being a black person in the army had affected him, he never did say much of anything to me about it, but I know there were times when he was abused by some of the other people, you know, and he used to mention it to Mama, and I could hear them talking about it, though I never knew any of the details. I do remember that when my brother registered with the selective service during World War ii, and we expected him to be drafted, Daddy kept saying, "I wish I could go in his place, because I've already been through the ropes, and I have the experience, and I'd know how to protect myself."

Before going into the army, Daddy had married a woman named Hattie Olvin, who was ten years older than he and had already been married twice. They were married for only about a year after he came home from the war, and then they divorced.

After that, Daddy set his sights on Miss Jannie Burwell, but he hesitated to press his case because he knew the old saying that no woman wants a secondhand man. When he did get around to asking Grandma Liz if she would give him her daughter's hand in marriage, she said, "Give you all I got?"

Daddy persisted, and Grandma finally gave in. The marriage took place at the Indian Creek Primitive Baptist Church, and Tom was born two years later and then Jimmy, but Jimmy died in infancy, of meningitis.

Meanwhile, Daddy and Grandpa Sonnie started buying land north of town, and by the late 1920s they had acquired a forty- acre farm out on Blue spring branch at one hundred dollars an acre. But Daddy thought he needed more land to farm, so he put a sharecropper on the forty- acre place—I think it was one of our distant relatives—and then he moved us to a bigger farm, the place where I was born. It had 160 acres and was owned by a Mr. Buell of York Harbor, Maine. Mr. Buell came south only once a year, in November, just after harvest, in time to collect a fourth of what Daddy made, which was his due under our arrangement.

So by the time I was born, we were in the unusual position of being ourselves sharecroppers while having sharecroppers on our own place. The difference was that ours paid us half of what they made because we furnished the seed, the fertilizer, the implements, horses, and mules. That was the system. A tenant farmer paid the owner a fourth or a half of everything he made, depending on what had been furnished. Of course, our tenants were always black, because black landowners never had white tenants. White had white. White had black. And black had black. But black never had white, not that I knew of anyway.

It was the black tenants of white owners who usually got the short end of the stick because of the piling up of debts to the owner against next year's crop. The problem would start when the owner gave the tenant a furnishing check to be drawn from the owner's bank account should the tenant need a slab of bacon or a little lard or sugar or coffee. If differences arose-—if a white farm owner said you owed such- and- such an amount—you had to pay. About the only thing you could do was go to work for another owner, whose place was usually just down the road and where you'd sometimes have to wait until the present occupant had moved out, perhaps because of a quarrel he'd had with his owner.

There was lots of moving around like this—people loading up their pots and pans, tying up their chickens, and throwing everything on the wagon. I had a cousin everybody called Kilbuck who'd moved so often people said, "Whenever the chickens see him coming, they lay down and cross their legs."

Besides farming, Daddy was a preacher, the pastor of St. James Primitive Baptist Church. He became a minister while he was in the army. He was not a chaplain, but he began preaching while he was in the army, and when he came back, he was ordained, and then he built St. James, literally and figuratively. He actually built it with his own hands. The church was located in town on Howe Street, and his congregation was something like 100 or 150 people. It was a nice frame building, with a steeple and vestibule, a choir room and a pastor's study, and a small parsonage, which Daddy rented out.

And he was a fine preacher. The words seemed spontaneous, but we knew his preparations had started on Saturday afternoon, when he'd leave the fields early and go to the house for his glasses and Bible. People would say, "There's only two good preachers in town. One is Reverend so- and- so, and the other is Reverend here ford."

Daddy was good at farming, but by the time I was born, with the Depression going on, the price of cotton just kept falling. And cotton was always a risk. The Buell place had a mix of soils, from good bottomland to red clay that needed lots of expensive fertilizer. You started early in the spring by breaking up the biggest clods with a harrow, then you laid out the furrows and put down some fertilizer with potash and other ingredients.

In April came the planting. You could buy seed, or, if you'd saved seed from good healthy plants the previous year, you planted these. Daddy used a horse-drawn planter, and he was always careful to sow the seed thick to get a good stand, which would later be thinned out with a hoe. In May, June, and July you cultivated, and by the end of July, you'd lay by, which meant you didn't do anything for awhile except hope the wind and hail wouldn't hurt the bolls once they started opening.

By September it was time to pick, but since not all the cotton matured at once you'd usually have several pickings, right down to the last scrapping. To scrap was to take whatever was left, what some folks referred to as Christmas money or personal money that didn't show up anywhere on the books.

Because the Buell place was so large, Daddy would have to hire extra hands—first, to chop and thin the cotton plants, and later, to do the picking. He might hire ten or twelve people a day, all black, of course, women and children as well as men. He'd pick them up in the wagon early in the morning down in the poor sections of town, where they'd be standing out along Washington and Winston and Arnett streets, waiting for something to turn up.

Depending on the amount of rain you'd had, you might have to do several choppings to clear out the weeds and grass from around the plants, and what the people got for a full day's work doing this from sunup to sundown was seventy- five cents and find their own dinner, or they could take fifty cents and dinner, which is what we called the noon meal. Mama cooked the food, and the big garden and orchard out back of our house made it possible for her to vary the dinners so that the people never had to eat the same thing two days in a row.

For picking, the workers were paid by the pound, maybe a dollar per one hundred pounds. It took a long time to pick that much. When your sack was full, you'd drag it over to the wagon and have it weighed, and though you'd hear a lot of stories about people who picked three hundred or four hundred pounds in a day, I never saw it happen. I never saw anyone pick much over two hundred pounds in a single day. I was a pretty good picker myself by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, but I could never pick more than a hundred pounds in a day.

As a boy, my job was to carry water to the field hands from a well located along Blue Spring branch, about three- quarters of a mile away. I'd tote it in a bucket with a dipper, and the older people would try to convince me it was easier to carry two because it helps you balance. But I never wanted to carry more than one.


Excerpted from Beside the Troubled Waters by Sonnie Wellington Hereford III Jack D. Ellis Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sonnie Wellington Hereford III is a retired physician and civil rights leader who has taught at Alabama A&M University and Calhoun Community College, and has served as campus physician for those schools, as well as Oakwood College.  

Jack D. Ellis is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and author of The Physician-Legislators of France: Medicine and Politics in the Early Third Republic, 1870–1914.


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