OPINION | TOM DILLARD: The origins of our Black physicians

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, about 120,000 formerly enslaved Arkansans faced the incredibly daunting necessity of building new lives. Some means for making a living had to be found. Schools had to be established. Families separated by slavery needed reconstitution.

No challenge facing the freedmen was more serious than finding medical care. Developing a cadre of professionally trained physicians would take decades, but by the turn of the 20th century Arkansas was home to an interesting variety of pioneering Black physicians.

Professionally trained doctors of any race were scarce in Arkansas until well into the 20th century. For generations early Arkansans of both races were more likely to see self-trained herb doctors--often pronounced "yarb doctors."

Occasionally, Black herb doctors gained recognition for their cures. Patience Brooks Trotter, who was born a slave in 1843 at Monticello, Drew County, developed a large herbal practice. White physicians were known to refer cases to Trotter.

The medical school in Little Rock did not accept Black applicants until 1948, so aspiring Black doctors had to go out of state for training. Between 1869 and 1907, 11 Black medical colleges were founded, the first being at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Eventually, only Howard and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.. would survive.

Established in 1876 by a gift of $30,000 from the wealthy sons of an Irish immigrant family named Meharry, the Nashville institution educated the great majority of early Black doctors in Arkansas.

One of the best known of those doctors in Arkansas was Dr. D.B. Gaines of Little Rock. Dr. Gaines was born enslaved in South Carolina near the end of the Civil War. He was named for his owner's brother, Dr. Bluford Gaines. As Dr. Gaines pointed out when interviewed by the WPA in the late 1930s, "My name is Doctor Bluford Gaines. Of course, I am a doctor, but my [first] name is Doctor."

Dr. Gaines, who was a graduate of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, taught at Little Rock's Union High School before entering Meharry in 1893. In 1900, he became an ordained Baptist minister, serving for many years as pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Little Rock.

Dr. G.W. Hayman of Little Rock was also a graduate of Meharry. Dr. Hayman, an Arkansas native, was well enough regarded that Republicans nominated him for a federal pension examining board, but he was not appointed when white leaders in the Grand Army of the Republic raised objections.

Drs. Gaines and Hayman were active politically. In 1903, when the state Legislature adopted a bill requiring the segregation of streetcars, they helped organize a spirited protest. They also helped organize a streetcar boycott in Little Rock, even forming a "We Walk League" to help enforce the boycott by charging a voluntary "fine" for those who broke the boycott. Black patronage of streetcars declined by 90 percent in Little Rock--but the law remained on the books.

Dr. R.A. Williams was born in 1879 in the newly created town of Forrest City in St. Francis County. In 1896, Dr. Williams graduated from Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock and took his medical degree at Meharry in 1902.

While practicing in Helena, Dr. Williams helped establish the Royal Circle of Friends in 1909. Fraternal organizations were important to Black Americans, not only for their social component but because of their medical and insurance benefits. Dr. Williams moved to Chicago in 1915 to oversee the Royal Circle's national headquarters.

Also of Helena was Dr. Robert D. Miller. Born into a prominent, affluent, and high-achieving family there in 1908, young Robert was sent to Cushing Academy in Boston following the devastating Elaine Race Massacre of 1819 in which Miller family members were murdered.

Following his graduation from Howard University, Dr. Miller studied at Meharry, graduating in 1933. His son, Dr. Robert Dan Miller Jr., would later serve as the first Black mayor of Helena, and his grandson Brian S. Miller is currently a federal judge.

Pine Bluff has been home to a number of early Black physicians. Dr. J.W. Rowland received his degree from Meharry in 1887. Like a few other Black doctors, Dr. Rowland established a drug business, the People's Drug Store. He died as a young man, passing away while on a house call.

One of the best educated Black doctors in Little Rock was Dr. George William Stanley Ish. Born in 1883 to a family of Little Rock educators, Dr. Ish graduated from Talladega College in 1903, followed by a second bachelor's degree from Yale University in 1905. He received his medical degree from Harvard in 1909.

Dr. Ish was one of the Little Rock physicians who established Bush Memorial Hospital in 1918. In 1953, Dr. Ish was among the first four Black doctors to be accepted for membership in the Pulaski County Medical Society.

I must note that not all white doctors turned away Black patients, and some had treated enslaved Blacks before the Civil War. Indeed, often owners of large plantations had contracts with white physicians to provide health care for their human property.

Starting in 1899, Dr. T.E. Rhine practiced for more than 60 years at Thornton, on the border of Dallas and Calhoun counties, delivering more than 7,000 babies, a large percentage of whom were Black. Despite the exceptions, the great majority of Black Arkansans--especially in rural areas--received little health care until after World War II.

Tom Dillard is a historian and the founder of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He lives in retirement near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.