To commemorate African-American History Month, the Brody School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity Affairs and the Student National Medical Association will sponsor an illustrated talk entitled, “Entering a ‘White’ Profession: Black Physicians and Racial Exclusion, 1865-1920.” Todd L. Savitt, PhD, assistant dean of diversity and professor in the Department of Bioethics and Interdisciplinary Studies, will speak noon-1p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 20 in Brody 2N-86.
Black physicians in the highly race-conscious turn-of-the-century South were gaining recognition and achieving a measure of success. Like other physicians, they faced the problems of gaining patients’ confidence and establishing collegial relationships with other local doctors. They had to earn their status among patients and practitioners. But black physicians of the period lived always with another issue that affected their careers and personal lives—race. For example, they had to overcome black patients’ reluctance to use their services, low remuneration from a generally poorer, predominantly black clientele, and an unfriendly reception and professional exclusion from many white physicians. The sorts of situations Southern black physicians encountered and the ways they coped with them in their dealings with black patients, white physicians, white patients, and fellow black doctors as they entered the previously white medical profession are the subject of this article.
Race added an extra measure of uncertainty to the arrival of a black practitioner in town. Few blacks and even fewer whites had ever met and dealt with, personally or professionally, a black person with a medical degree. So the same black citizens who accorded black physicians high status in the community also treated warily someone so different from themselves who took on a role (“doctoring”) usually reserved for whites.
Southern white doctors took advantage of black practitioners’ vulnerable positions to isolate them professionally. In addition to refusing to consult with or assist blacks, they barred their black colleagues from joining local and state medical societies, refused them admitting privileges to local hospitals, and overtly and subtly tried to reduce their competitiveness for patients who could afford to pay. This gulf of isolation based on race appeared almost immediately after blacks entered the medical profession in the 1860s. Such exclusionary policies extended to all Southern medical societies through the 1940s.
Black physicians fought against professional isolation in several ways. Personal contact with white physicians sometimes helped. More fruitful were activities that sought to circumvent the formal racial isolation imposed by whites. Though these methods simply established parallel segregated institutions for black physicians, they did provide professional opportunities that were otherwise unavailable. Occasionally black physicians in a city established a local medical society and met regularly for professional or social purposes. Others simply recognized common needs and acted to assist one another, even in rural areas.
In general, black physicians adapted to medical practice in the segregated South despite the variety of racial problems and barriers they faced.