African American Physicians

Following emancipation, Mississippi developed a small but important black medical community. By 1890 the state had thirty-four practicing black physicians (2.1 percent of the total), most of them educated at one of the South’s all-black medical schools, which included Flint Medical College in New Orleans and Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Fifty years later, Mississippi had just fifty-five African American physicians. In addition to the hardships that plagued all black Mississippians during the Jim Crow era—segregation, disfranchisement, violence—black physicians in Mississippi faced many of the same obstacles that confronted African American doctors in other parts of the South: exclusion from educational facilities, public hospitals, medical societies, and postgraduate programs; an impoverished clientele; and competition with white doctors for paying patients.

Because Mississippi had no medical school open to African Americans before 1966, aspiring black physicians had to leave the state, and many did not return. To attract more physicians, black and white, to the neediest areas, the Mississippi legislature inaugurated a financial aid program in 1946. Loans were available to Mississippi citizens who completed their premedical education and were accepted at an accredited medical school anywhere in the United States. The state paid the student’s tuition and in some cases living expenses, and after graduating, the recipient spent five years practicing in an approved area of Mississippi and the loan was expunged. African Americans were allowed to practice in any area where a black practitioner was needed. Between 1946 and 1953 Mississippi loaned $1.5 million to 420 medical students—including 31 African Americans—to study medicine outside the state, and the program’s success inspired twelve other states to establish similar programs.

Once they completed their education, the greatest handicap Mississippi’s black physicians faced in attracting patients was the lack of access to hospitals. Many hospitals barred African Americans, and most facilities that admitted black patients usually did so only in segregated basement wards. In addition, hospitals that admitted black patients often did not grant black physicians staff privileges, even if patients requested treatment by their personal physicians. African American physicians therefore had no choice but to turn many of their patients over to white doctors, who could use the hospital facilities and who were usually more than willing to poach the patients—and the fees they paid. As Dr. Albert Dumas of Natchez lamented in 1910, white surgeons “carry the patient to the hospital and often you never see them again.”

African American physicians often founded small, private hospitals and clinics, most of which did not meet the American Hospital Association’s minimum standards for size, equipment, resources, or even cleanliness. Yet these small clinics met a valuable need for both doctors and patients, especially in rural areas. In some areas of Mississippi, in fact, they were the only hospital facilities for persons of any race for dozens of miles in any direction. As late as 1963, none of Mississippi’s public hospitals had black physicians on staff. However, as a result of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Simkins v. Cone (1963), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the creation of Medicare in 1965, most public hospitals accepted both black patients and staff by 1970.

At the vanguard of the movement to desegregate public hospitals were African American medical societies. Excluded from membership in American Medical Association–affiliated societies, black physicians formed separate organizations to share professional information, hold clinics, promote medical advancements, and provide postgraduate training. In 1895 in Atlanta, black physicians formed the National Medical Association, and five years later, thirteen black physicians founded a state affiliate, the Mississippi Medical and Surgical Association. To improve the health of black Mississippians and provide continuing education for its members, the association routinely held clinics as a part of its annual meeting. In 1934, for example, the association met in Yazoo City, with thirty-two of the state’s forty-four black physicians in attendance. During free clinics at the Afro-American Hospital, these doctors performed fifteen operations for members of the local community.

Physicians from remote areas often depended on local and regional medical societies to provide postgraduate education. These meetings also provided badly needed professional companionship, since white physicians frequently ostracized their black counterparts. Recalled Gilbert Mason, secretary of the Gulf Coast Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association, a black organization that covered Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, “We saw to it that black practitioners did not work in total isolation.” Meetings regularly involved a scientific session, a business session, and a dinner or social gathering. Like public hospitals, American Medical Association–affiliated societies began to drop their racial bars in the late 1960s, ultimately leading many African American medical societies to fold.

Further Reading

  • Lucie Robertson Bridgforth, Medical Education in Mississippi: A History of the School of Medicine (1984)
  • Douglas L. Connor with John F. Marzalek, A Black Physician’s Story: Bringing Hope in Mississippi (1985)
  • Gilbert R. Mason with James Patterson Smith, Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Black Doctor’s Civil Rights Struggle (2000)
  • Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1989)
  • D. S. Pankratz and Julia C. Davis, Journal of Medical Education (April 1960)
  • Todd Savitt, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (Winter 1987)
  • Thomas J. Ward Jr., Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South (2003)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title African American Physicians
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018