State Senator Geraldine Thompson shared the civil rights legacy of Orlando’s first African American physicians as she challenged College of Medicine faculty, staff and students October 13 to reach beyond themselves to help those in need.
Senator Thompson, D-Orlando, was the featured speaker at the medical school’s Lunch and Learn to begin Diversity Week celebrations. She is the founder of The Association to Preserve African American Society, an Orlando museum that honors the history of African Americans in the community, and she shared stories of how Central Florida’s first physicians of color were key leaders in the civil rights movement.
“It was the African American physicians in Orlando who helped bring racial segregation to an end,” Senator Thompson said. “They challenged the status quo. The lack of access to health care, the lack of access to the voting booth, the lack of access to quality education…these were all things that were challenged by African American physicians in Orlando.”
At the time of the Civil Rights movement, white doctors did not treat African American patients. A local hospital had a basement ward that grouped all patients of color together. Mothers gave birth to babies in beds next to people suffering from tuberculosis. While teachers and other professionals could be fired for publicly pushing for civil rights, African American physicians had independence to speak up about all areas of injustice because they earned their livelihood by caring for people in their own community, Senator Thompson said. For that reason, “They were able to get in the way and make some noise,” she explained, quoting from long-time civil rights leader John Lewis.
One of those physicians was Dr. William Monroe Wells, who came to Orlando in 1917 and in the course of his career delivered more than 5,500 babies. During segregation, he built the Wells’ Built Hotel on Orlando’s West South Street because African Americans could not stay in white hotels. He also built the nearby South Street Casino, an entertainment venue where famous musicians including B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie performed. Dr. Wells is part of the College of Medicine family – a connection that his family just recently discovered. Rhonda Anderson-Robinson, the medical school’s coordinator in the Clinical Skills and Simulation Center, learned by visiting Senator Thompson’s museum that Dr. Wells is her great uncle.
Lack of access to healthcare had life and death consequences during segregation, Senator Thompson explained. On Christmas night 1951, the home of civil rights activist Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriet was bombed. The family lived in the Brevard County community of Mims, which had no African American physicians. So the couple’s relatives drove them in a car to Sanford, which had the area’s closest physician of color. But medical care came too late. Harry T. Moore died that night and his wife nine days later, the first martyrs of the civil rights movement.
While healthcare today is not segregated, lack of access to care is still a stark reality for many underserved communities and medical students and physicians play a role in solving that problem, Senator Thompson said. She reiterated a banner she saw at the 2013 50th Anniversary March on Washington for civil rights that said “We’ve got now. Who’s got next?” And Senator Thompson posed this question to the healthcare leaders of tomorrow: “Who is prepared to do the work that people like Dr. Wells did?”