Booker T. Washington realized the importance of healthcare while organizing the Normal School for Colored Teachers in 1881. The former slaves were a vulnerable population because they suffered ailments associated with malnutrition, personal hygiene, stress and lack of medical attention. Therefore, Washington organized the first hospital for faculty, staff and students, and a nurse-training program in 1892, 11 years after opening what is now Tuskegee University. The nurse-training program evolved into the first baccalaureate degree program for nurses in the State of Alabama.
Dr. Washington appointed Dr. John Kenney to serve as the first Medical Director of the school. Under the direction of Dr. Kenney, the John A. Memorial Hospital opened in 1913. Later, in 1921, under the leadership of Dr. Robert R. Moton, the second principal of what is now Tuskegee University, Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital opened to treat Black World War I veterans. It became one of the largest hospitals in the VA system.
Between the two hospitals, Tuskegee began a long and prominent history in the medical field that brought with it employment for people from diverse professional fields and educational levels. People served as medical specialists, laundry room workers, dentists, electricians, dieticians, nurses, social workers, lab technicians, guards, janitors, nurses aids, photographers, graphic artists, secretaries, financial specialists, administrators, gardeners, rehabilitation specialists, canteen operators, waitresses, chefs, cooks, musicians, religious leaders, and much more.
As a child growing up in Tuskegee, I remember feeling a great deal of pride because we did not have to go out of town to get medical care. We could go to “our own” hospitals and did not have to go to white doctors who were often very prejudice and disrespectful to people of color. Many of the doctors who worked at the two hospitals were our neighbors and friends; and many of their children were schoolmates.
Pediatrician, Dr. Thomas Campbell, Jr., who was the father of my friend Anna, was a jazz and folk music enthusiast and introduced us as teenagers to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Miriman Makeba and others. We thought we were so cool sitting in the Campbell’s living room after a party listening to Miles, that is until Dr. Campbell came out from his bedroom exclaiming – “It’s time for y’all to go home, I’m not running a nightclub in here!” Of course, we all scrambled to get out of the Campbell’s house not only to meet curfew, but also to prevent a call to our parents.
All of the hospitals were very involved in the community. I remember the VA hospital had a baseball team and a professional ball field. My father, Lucius Williams, Jr., Psychiatric Social Worker, was a star short stop. He could catch the ball and hit home runs much to the delight of the audience of veterans and community folk. They would say, “Lucius Williams show nuph can play baseball.” He helped to win many baseball games and my family came often to cheer him on.
Dr. Lucenia Williams Dunn is President & CEO of the Tuskegee Macon County Community Foundation, Inc. and is also former Mayor of the City of Tuskegee