North Carolina doctor gets long-delayed apology, honors for service that led to integration of U.S. Hospitals
By Thomas Goldsmith
In an extraordinary recognition of past wrongs and changing times, Alvin Blount received an apology and honors from Cone Health on Thursday for the hospital’s past practice of excluding African-American physicians such as Blount, as well as black patients.
In a downtown Greensboro hotel where hundreds of his family, friends and admirers had gathered, Blount, 94, heard officials of the Cone network recount how he and other plaintiffs — doctors, dentists and patients — successfully challenged segregated care at Moses H. Cone Memorial and Wesley Long hospitals in the early 1960s. Both hospitals are now part of the not-for-profit Cone Health network.
The landmark lawsuit, in which Blount is the lone surviving plaintiff, was Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, named for another African-American doctor and first brought in 1962. After an initial loss in trial court, a federal appeals court supported the plaintiffs, whose claim rested on the principle that federal health care funds should not be used to support segregated hospital care.
The United States Supreme Court declined to take the case, making it settled law and bringing about the integration of hospitals across the nation.
Before the ceremony, Cone CEO Terry Akin compared the decision to the high court’s better known Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools in 1954.
“This decision ended ‘separate but equal’ forever!’” he said, smiling, flanked by five of his adult children.
In an interview before the ceremony, Blount noted there’s still room for improved treatment of minorities in health care, including increased roles in decision making.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Blount, who still has a general practice in Greensboro. “Now that we are here, let’s do it! Now that we are here, let’s be happy about it!”
The recognition is more than symbolic. Cone Health is giving $250,000 over 10 years to a scholarship in honor of Blount and the other plaintiffs. The Greensboro Medical Society, which has advocated for African-American professionals and patients, will use the funds to award scholarships to students pursuing careers in health care.
Training in science led to med school
Born in Raleigh in 1922, Blount graduated from the city’s segregated Washington High School, then earned an undergraduate degree from North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. His parents, Alvin and Annie Blount, brought him up on Bedford Avenue in Raleigh’s Oberlin neighborhood. They tried to discourage him from attending A&T, which was known in part as an agricultural training college.
“My father said, ‘Do you have to go there for four years to learn to feed hogs?’” Blount said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘I want to go there to learn chemistry.’”
Blount received his medical degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he studied from 1944 until 1947. His internship and surgical residency took place at Kate B. Reynolds Hospital in Winston-Salem.
Blount had spent five years in active military duty during and after World War II, and he was recalled during the Korean War to serve in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
Heroic efforts marked stint as MASH doctor
The first MASH unit, for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, had been established in the last year of World War II. The 8225th from Fort Bragg, the unit that Blount joined, was placed 10 miles from the demilitarized zone, the strip of land that divided North and South Korea.
“During his tour in Korea, Dr. Blount’s team performed 90 major and minor surgeries a week,” wrote the authors of an article in the Journal of the National Medical Association. “Field surgery techniques were often utilized, such as multiple debridements for soft-tissue wounds, and temporary abdominal closures for penetrating abdominal wounds.”
A character based on Blount appeared in a book which led to a famous movie and to television shows based on the MASH units, but his character was written out of the long-running TV series, according to the JNMA article.
After his distinguished service in World War II and the Korean War, Blount returned to the segregated South. He worked for years to fight a system that excluded African-American doctors from all-white medical societies, refused most from privileges in public hospitals, and in most cases prohibited black doctors from treating white patients.
“It seemed to me, and to our medical and dental staff, that we needed to take an opportunity to apologize for our role in this chapter of our history and to honor these individuals for challenging us to be our best selves, andfor their foresight and courage in changing America,” Akin said in a statement.[box style=”2″]To learn more about Dr. Alvin C. Blount