Little black bags

by Brian Clarey

Just a week into its mission, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum has already accumulated gravitas on the corner of Elm and February One as a bastion of the movement that caught fire here so long ago. But a mile or so down Market Street, another marker on the journey for equality humbly awaits discovery and, perhaps, recognition.

“This is the only African-American medical museum in the state of North Carolina, and the only free-standing one in the United States” laments Katherine McWilliams, founder of the Sebastian Medical Museum, from the dining room of the Tudor Revival home in East Greensboro, a space that now holds photographs and artifacts celebrating prominent African- American doctors in the area’s history.

Their visages line the walls like postcards from times gone by, and McWilliams introduces them like she’s making connections at a cocktail party.

“This is Dr. George Evans,” she says to one of the portraits.

“He turns 103 years old in March. And he’s still driving. What do you think of that?” And, “Dr. [Alvin] Blount was the first African American to perform surgery at Moses Cone.”

And, “Dr. [Gerald] Truesdale was from High Point,” she says. “He was the first African-American plastic surgeon to come to Greensboro.”

Of Dr. Flotilla Watkins, for whom she worked for a time, she says, “He was a surgeon. And all of his children are doctors.”

There are others, of course, Dr. George Simkins and his son, Dr. George Simkins Jr., for whom the notorious Greensboro PAC is named. Dr. William Hampton, the first African American to serve on Greensboro City Council.

But she saves much of her veneration for a portrait over the mantle, a grainy photo of Dr. Simon Powell Sebastian and his wife Martha when they were very young.

“He was from Antigua, in the British West Indies,” McWilliams says. “And he came here and he was a little perplexed that the healthcare for African Americans was… different than for the white people. African Americans back in the day did not go to the white hospital. Doctors made home visits.”

A display case in the dining room stacked with little black traveling bags gives testament, along with an antique blood-pressure apparatus and a very old-school cardiogram machine. And in an alcove sits the paperwork for US Patent No. 3,682,177, a cranial drill invented in 1972 by Dr. Andrew

Williams, father of prominent Greensboro attorney Joe Williams.

In 1923, Dr. Sebastian helped found the Greensboro Negro Hospital Association, which in turn created the L. Richardson Memorial Hospital here at the corner of Washington and Bluford streets in 1927, named for the pharmacist who invented Vick’s Vapo-Rub and dedicated to the care of African Americans. Then Dr. Sebastian and his wife built this Tudor across the street, where he lived and built his practice.

You can still see the hospital from the window of the Nurse’s Gallery on the first floor: a vaguely adobe-like structure that faces the corner, now utilized as an assisted-living facility for the elderly but which was once the only place in town that administered to blacks.

The Nurse’s Gallery pays homage to the hospital’s other function — as a nursing school that matriculated 140 African Americans into the profession before integration made it somewhat obsolete.

That’s another part of the legacy McWilliams honors here today. Three days a week the house functions as a school, training applicants for careers in the medical field as insurance coders, technicians, administrative assistants and more.

“We have 21 different curricula,” she says. “There is such a shortage of nurses. And as of this year three is going to be activity in this industry.”

Oh, she’s looking forward as well as backwards, the Janus of east Greensboro. Not only will the downtown museum spur a surge of civil rights tourism, she says, she’s sent a proposal to President Barack Obama requesting funds to expand the museum into a memorial not just for Greensboro, but for every African American who contributed to the history of medicine.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have all 50 states represented here?” she asks the portraits that line the walls. “That’s the plan.”

McWilliams holds her own not-so-insignificant place in that history. The former administrator of Kings County Hospital in New York City was once the secretary at L. Richardson Memorial. She processed insurance forms for Dr. Watkins for a couple years. And before that she attended Dudley High School with one Ezell Blair Jr., who came to be known as Jibreel Khazan after he became famous for sitting down at a lunch counter in 1960. She joined in a couple days later.

“My mother told me, ‘Do not go downtown,’” McWilliams remembers. “I said, ‘Yes Ma’am.’ And then she saw my picture on the front page of the evening paper.”