Last week, I hurried through the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library to attend a forum on Asian-Americans. Afterward, Wang-Ying Glasgow, the coordinator for library services, urged me not to miss the new gallery exhibit on the history of African-American doctors in Memphis.
Calvin McBride (right) and family friend Rev. Kip Cole, both of Jackson, Tenn., discuss the University of West Tennessee Medical College during the opening reception for the “Opening Doors: Contemporary African-American Surgeons” exhibit at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. McBride’s grandfather, Dr. Samuel Broome, was a professor at the black medical school.
Before I left the library, I paused and viewed the exhibit with appreciation and indebtedness. I realized how little I knew about the history of my African-American colleagues in Memphis.
On a yellow poster board, I saw the picture of Dr. Wheelock Alexander Bisson (1898-1995), who was a valedictorian at Florida A&M University and graduated from Meharry Medical School. From there, he moved to Memphis, founded the Park Avenue Clinic in the Orange Mound neighborhood and served Memphians for 55 years.
On a blue panel were the Bryas Brothers from Kosciusko, Miss. Three of the four brothers practiced in Memphis, and the eldest brother, Andrew Bryas, established one of our city’s first pharmacies.
On a purple panel was the biography of Dr. Augustus A. White III, an orthopedic surgeon and author who grew up in Memphis during the hard-core days of segregation. He was the first African-American to graduate from Stanford Medical School and the first to become both a surgical resident and a surgical professor at Yale Medical Center. Now, he is an orthopedic surgeon-in-chief emeritus at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School.
It’s hard to believe that in the 1970s there were only 15 African-American doctors in Memphis. Today, as Dr. Jarvis Reed, president of the Bluff City Medical Society (founded in 1885 by African-American physicians to promote education and reduce disparities), pointed out, there are more than 250 black physicians in Memphis. Jarvis, an oncologist, and his wife, Dr. Patrice Reed, a pediatrician, are close friends of mine. Our kids learn in the same classrooms, play on the same soccer team and attend each other’s birthdays. Yet in so many conversations and interactions, we had rarely discussed our ethnic histories.
Often in our day-to-day lives, we forget our roots. We may look at our past as baggage, whether it be the color of our skin, the accents on our tongues or the features on our faces. Yet when I spoke at the Asian-American forum, I said, “These collective experiences and works of our ancestors are not baggage but treasures.” And every so often it’s good to open the treasure chest and appreciate what we have.
In every field, there are pioneers, those who have broken the gender or race barrier. We are indebted to them, and it is fitting that we honor them, not just for the sake of honoring, but so that we and our children can learn how to break other barriers in the future. Today, in our city, we still struggle with racial and economic disparities in health care and education. In particular, we have high infant mortality, teenage pregnancy and school dropout rates.
I’ve gained a new appreciation for those who have worked so long to try to overcome these disparities — people like Dr. Edward Reed, 91, the first black surgeon in West Tennessee certified by the American Board of Surgery. He was among the 200 guests at the Feb, 17 exhibit opening, along with other prominent African-American Memphis doctors.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Dr. Ken Robinson, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and the first African-American health commissioner for Tennessee, led the crowd in a chant: “If it were not for them, where would we be?” As a preacher and a father of twins, both of whom have now become doctors, Robinson epitomizes the success of African-American doctors in Memphis.
The Memphis exhibit is part of the national exhibit “Opening Doors: Contemporary African-American Surgeons,” honoring these medical pioneers. It is here until April 7. So when driving down Poplar or Walnut Grove, don’t hurry past the library. Take a few minutes to check out the exhibit. I’m glad I did.
Source: Commercial Appeal