It has often been noted that the Civil Rights Movement were the roots of the Community Health Center Movement. Many of the visionaries and brave leaders who gave life to these important chapters of American history were African Americans. Today, we celebrate their achievements.
In the 1960s, millions of Americans, lived in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods or rural areas without access to basic healthcare. Health and Civil Rights activists H. Jack Geiger and Count Gibson sought to change that by founding America’s first health centers, the Columbia Point Health Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts and the Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Fast forward, fifty one years later, health centers serve over 24 million patients at about 9,000 sites across the nation- that’s remarkable.
None of this would be possible without the many community leaders, clinicians, nurses and activists who dedicated their lives to the mission. Among the African American leaders who brought their vision and passion to the cause of health centers were:
Dr. Aaron Shirley –First African-American resident at UMMC Residency Program
- Dr. Shirley was born in Gluckstadt, Mississippi. He was a graduate of Tougaloo College and Meharry Medical College. Dr. Blair E. Batson, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at University of Mississippi Medical Center, offered him a position in the department’s residency education program. Shirley became the first African-American resident at UMMC when he entered the residency program in 1965. For a long time, Shirley was the only black pediatrician in the state of Mississippi. In 1993, Shirley was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Grant”) for his pioneering approach to rural and urban healthcare. Dr. Shirley was also responsible for founding the Jackson Medical Mall, which is home to numerous clinics, medical support firms, city offices, classrooms and retail outlets. It was the first development of its kind and now serves as a national model.
Dr. Helen Barnes- One of the first African American Female Physicians to practice in Mississippi
- Dr. Barnes was born in Jackson and raised in New York City. While attending boarding school, she developed an interest in medicine while helping in the school’s infirmary. Although she was discouraged by a school counselor who told her that women were not wanted in medicine, she enrolled at Howard University College of Medicine in 1954. After her medical training, she was invited by Dr. Jack Geiger to work at the Tufts-Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. In 2014, Dr. Barnes was inducted as Mississippi Legend in OB/GYN by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Dr. Charles DeWitt Watts- First African American to be certified by a surgical specialty board in North Carolina
- Dr. Watts spent more than 50 years advocating for civil and human rights and for the quality of medical care in North Carolina, especially the poor and under-served. He broke racial barriers when he pushed for certification of black medical students. He was the first African American to be certified by a surgical specialty board in North Carolina. He also founded Lincoln Community Health Center, a health center in Durham, NC. Alongside other prominent community leaders, he fought for the creation of one integrated public health care facility, Durham Regional Hospital, built in in 1967. Dr. Watts also served for 28 years as Vice President and Medical Director for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., the largest African-American managed insurer in the country.
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston- First African American woman to direct a Public Health Service Bureau.
- Dr. Gaston dedicated her career to improving medical care for poor and minority families and to the promotion of health care equality for all Americans. She is also internationally recognized for her leadership in combating sickle cell disease and leading changes in management of children with the illness, which led to a decrease in suffering and mortality. After earning her degree, Dr. Gaston rejected an offer to practice medicine in a middle-class neighborhood in Cincinnati, instead choosing to help establish a
Community Health Center in the low-income neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. In recognition of her dedication, Lincoln Heights and Cincinnati established a day in her honor. In 1990, Dr. Gaston became director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. She was the first African American woman to direct a major public health service bureau and was the second African-American woman to achieve the rank of assistant surgeon general and rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service.
The hard work of champions like Dr. Geiger, Dr. Gibson, and the aforementioned individuals, made room for modern day heroes, like Dr. Kameron Matthews. Dr. Matthews, a board-certified family doctor and the Chief Medical Officer of Mile Square Health Center in Chicago. Her research and interests focus on chronic condition self-management, behavioral health integration, and disparities within cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment. She is also an attorney. Dr. Matthews has received numerous awards including the 2015 National Medical Association Council for the Concerns of Women Physicians Emerging Trailblazer Award, the 2015 NACHC Health Professions Education and Training Award, and the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Health Braintrust Congressman Louis Stokes Public Health Advocate Award.
We salute these important leaders and their enduring legacies to public health during Black History Month.