interview was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation
Funding for this
project was provided in part by the Mississippi
the National Endowment for the Humanities, and
Department of Archives and History.
Dr. Robert Smith was born on
December 20, 1937, in Terry, Mississippi. One of twelve siblings,
Dr. Smith grew up on his father's self-contained farm where
his mother was a housewife and his father was a livestock
dealer. The farm has been home to five generations of Dr.
Smith's family; he currently resides there.
A gifted student, Dr. Smith
started high school at age eleven, due to double promotions.
As a child, Dr. Smith happened to thumb through the medical
books of a retired physician, and medicine captured his attention
and imagination. His higher education was earned at Tougaloo
College and Howard University, where he earned his M.D.
In 1961, Mississippi drafted
Dr. Smith as one of twelve Mississippi physicians for a national
draft of almost 400, for the Berlin Crisis; at that time,
in Mississippi, Dr. Smith joined the civil rights movement.
When Medgar Evers was shot, Dr. Smith understood in a new
way "what it truly meant to be black in Mississippi, and underprivileged,
and poor, and without medical care, and saw people by the
. . . thousands go without medical care."
In 1963, Dr. Smith and other
physicians formed the Medical Committee for Civil Rights and
picketed the American Medical Association to bring attention
to the issues regarding disparities of morbidity among African-Americans
and whites as a national problem, and to convince the American
Medical Association to come out against segregation in hospitals.
In the summer of 1964, he and others formed the Southern Arm
of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which sponsored
doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and other
members of the allied health disciplines to come to Mississippi
for Freedom Summer, 1964. In 1965, he helped obtain Office
of Equal Opportunity funds to set up a model healthcare clinic
in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, to serve seventeen counties by
providing health, environmental, social, and legal services
to those who needed it.
Currently there are around
twenty-three health centers in Mississippi serving several
100,000 people, and over 3000 centers nationally. Dr. Smith
still works in Mississippi's centers, providing health care
services to Mississippians.
Four-H Club 5
Higher Education 6
Ernst Borinski 7
Intercollegiate Council of Millsaps
and Tougaloo 8
Returning to Mississippi 8
Joining the movement 9
Picketing the American Medical
The Medical Committee for Civil
The Medical Committee for Human
Holmes County medical clinic
December 1964, Greenville meeting
Committee for Human Rights
Tufts-sponsored model for comprehensive
clinic plus helping services
Mound Bayou as site for comprehensive
Civil rights movement as change-agent
in national health legislation 21
Brown University and Tougaloo
College program 22
AN ORAL HISTORY
This is an interview for
the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with
Dr. Robert Smith and is taking place on April 8, 2000. The
interviewer is Harriet Tanzman.
[I'm] talking with Dr. Robert Smith in Jackson, Mississippi,
and this is April 8, year 2000. Thank you for being with us.
you, Harriet. It's good to see you after thirty-something
years. Thirty-four years?
Dr. Smith, can you tell us a little about when you were born
and where and your family background?
Harriet. I'm Dr. Bob Smith or Dr. Robert Smith. What they
call it. Some people call me Dr. Bob. But I was born really
a small-town boy. I was born in Terry, Mississippi, which
is a little hamlet about twelve miles south of Jackson, Mississippi.
My mother was a housewife, and my father was a livestock dealer.
And we had a small, self-contained farm that he had inherited
partially from his father who, reportedly, shortly after slavery,
learned how to read and write, and got into some argument
with his bossman up in Charleston, Mississippi. And they got
into it, and the man attacked him. And he had to flee. And
he hit the Illinois Central railroad track and hitchhiked
on a train that he thought was headed north, and it happened
to be going south. (Laughter.) And he got off in Terry. And
of Chicago. (Laughter.)
of Chicago. (Laughter.) Yeah. That's a true story. And he
got off in Terry, because he was hungry. And somehow managed
to save and scramble around in order to save money and buy
some land in Terry. And grew up and had a self-contained farm
with a grits mill and molasses mills, and the whole thing.
The whole nine yards, and cattle.
cattle, the whole thing. Self-contained farm. In fact, he
rescued some of his other relatives from the Delta, way back
in the 1800s. And had them tantamount to sharecropping. (Laughter.)
them sharecropping for him?
This was my grandfather. So, my father picked up another skill
called livestock buying and trading. And that's principally
the way we made our money. You know. And so--.
many brothers and sisters and where are you in the family?
were twelve of us, and I'm toward the tail-end. I'm the third
from the tail-end, which also made life better for me because
by the time I grew up, the great diaspora had taken place
and some of my brothers and sisters had migrated North. In
fact, my oldest sister, who has a daughter the same age I
am, lived in Minneapolis, and so, from age seven, it allowed
me an opportunity to stretch my wings and get out of Mississippi
because she was a girl and during summertime, we babysitted
each other. (Laughter.)
You went up?
Smith: Up to
Minneapolis and she would, you know, sometimes, some summers
be sent down here. But nevertheless I was born [December 20,]
1937, in Terry. Yeah. And born at home, incidentally. And
born in the same house in which we've lived all these years.
we're still there. We're still there. We call it home and
enjoy it. (Laughter.)
it still a farm?
still a farm. Yeah. And it's still in the family. Five generations.
My father lived to be 103. Just died last year. And saw five
generations. My mother died at age seventy-nine, and wasn't
so fortunate; but nevertheless, both lived a fairly long time.
I say she killed herself because she was a housewife and had
to make all those biscuits and bread and cook three meals
a day and washed on washboards and all of this kind of stuff.
In fact, I feel sorry for her in her grave because I just
can remember growing up and how she had to work so hard, you
know, cooking three meals a day. Cooking biscuits and (laughter)
bread for every meal almost. It was just a riot, really.
twelve of you.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine one woman, without any help?
(Laughter.) In fact, I can remember my father buying her her
first washing machine in 1949, really.
A wringer-type washing machine, but you still had to heat
water and pour water and all that kind of stuff, and hang
the clothes out in the wintertime and keep everybody going,
and all that stuff.
remember those machines.
Smith: Do you
remember those machines? (Laughter.)
the important thing for me, the thing that motivated me, I
guess, to study medicine was the fact that I had a principal
called William H. Garrick[?] who believed very strongly in
education and who felt, I guess, that I was, maybe, I won't
say gifted, but he encouraged my parents in terms of education
and also apparently somebody recognized something because
they kept giving me double promotions. I was really afraid
of teachers and was taught to respect teachers and things
like that. And can remember very specifically, I just didn't
want to be spanked. Never did want to be. Never wanted to
get spanked, and so, when I'd go home, I'd get my lessons.
I'd read. I'd get my arithmetic, as it was called then (laughter),
and learn how to write.
you did your work.
I did my work. And so there would be nothing for me to do.
And in fact, I can remember very distinctly. I, now, in counseling
people can truthfully talk to parents about bored kids. I
was one. But luckily, my teachers promoted me. And so--.
me. And promoted me, you know, to a different grade. You know.
To a higher--.
mean you skipped grades?
Smith: I skipped
grades. Yeah. In fact, I went to high school when I was eleven
because of skipping grades.
this principal was in your high school?
principal was in my grade school. Mm-hm.
one who encouraged you.
one who encouraged me. Mm-hm. But anyway, the thing that most
impressed me was a small book that was given to me when I
was a young boy in grade school, on famous black Americans.
It was a book that contained less that a hundred pages, and
as I would thumb through that book, there were two people
in that book that I identified with. One was a man called
Dean Dixon[?] as I recall, who was the first black to direct
the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra, and the second black
was Charles Drew. OK. (Laughter.) Those were my two, well,
what we now call icons, but for some reason those two people
captured my imagination as I thumbed through that book.
is the one who invented blood plasma? The doctor?
correct. Drew was the one who invented blood plasma. My mother
used to tell me, "Robert, you need to pray." And I'd be angry
with my mother.
And I'd say, "Pray for what?"
And now, I thank God that I had that book because the first
person I identified with in that book was Dean Dixon, and
I went out and just used to cry and beg and plead, and my
family somehow managed to buy me a piano, and I started taking
formal piano lessons. (Laughter.) And when I took formal piano
lessons, I learned that I didn't have any talent for the piano.
(Laughter.) There were kids who could come in off the playground
and hear, and as I recall back then in the forties, there
was a song called "Caledonia." Well, I could never listen
to anything over the radio and play a tune. I had to have
a formal music sheet. I could play formal music provided I
practiced, but otherwise, that was it. (Laughter.) I couldn't
go a step further.
that was not your talent?
I put it down real quick. And from then on, really, I decided
that I wanted to be a physician and started concentrating
my efforts in that regard. And luckily my father was hunting
with a Jewish physician called Dr. Cann[?], and he retired
from the VA system here in Jackson, and he told my father
that he could have his medical books.
he could have his medical books because he was retiring, and
he brought those medical books home, and I started thumbing
through those books as a boy, and that captured my real imagination,
and I was always fascinated by those books.
this when you were still a teenager? You were still going
I was a teenager. This was even, now, it would be what we
would call middle school age, junior high school. Mm-hm.
you encouraged by those teachers to continue?
yes. Absolutely. And I had other good, positive experiences.
For instance, my father was in livestock, and I had, of course,
an older brother. And I joined a group called the Four-H Club.
You know. At that time, we had dual everything in the South.
You know. Dual Four-H Club, dual Future Farmers of America,
and all of that. Well, anyway, my father bought me a registered
poll hereford, when I was, I guess, I don't know, very young.
Seven or eight, something like that, and I ended up winning
a state championship. (Laughter.) And that also put some money
in my pocket.
were very young.
young. And my daddy opened me a bank account. And so, that
was when I was, you know, eight, nine years old. Something
you all grow up helping with the farm?
Absolutely. We grew up helping with the farm, and helping
the neighbors. You know, I guess we didn't have--. It was
so many of us and during, I guess, at planting and harvesting
season, my father would hire extra labor to help, but, absolutely,
grew up helping with the farm. I mean, you know, that was
what every boy was expected to do.
was it when you went off to college and to medical school.
Was it difficult in terms of getting in? This would be the
Well, this was the fifties. I was very lucky. Went on to high
school, and was valedictorian in my class, and by that time--this
was now fifty-three--Mississippi was on the verge of Brown
v. [Board of] Education, and what later came to be the
great philosophy of nullification and interposition. And the
time when Mississippi was going back in time and had taken
away, really, some of the support that it had previously provided
at state schools such as Alcorn. Like prior to 1953, Alcorn
was an excellent teaching ground for physicians. Yes. And
by the fifties, that pretty much had disappeared, and about
the only place that you could get a liberal arts education
in the state of Mississippi as a black was Tougaloo. And I
convinced my father that he should send me to Tougaloo. Of
course, he didn't want me to go because he thought that was
spending a lot of money for nothing. He thought I ought to
go to Jackson State, which was in walking distance. (Laughter.)
is a better--?
did, at that time, they offered a liberal arts education and
had a modicum of a pre-health program.
program. Yes. Uh-huh.
where did you go to? So, that prepared you in terms of getting
into medical school? But wasn't that? You would have been
going to medical school in the mid-fifties, right?
Mm-hm. That's correct.
a very closed system, wasn't it?
Smith: In fact,
it was so much a closed system until when I took the medical
MCAT test at that time, by that time Brown v. [Board of]
Education had passed, and integration was a no-no. And
when I took the MCAT test, I guess, in 1956, Borinski, a fellow
by the name of Ernst Borinski at Tougaloo and Dr. St. Elmo
Brady[?] had to arrange for me to take the MCAT test at Millsaps.
And had to arrange for me to arrive at a certain gate at a
certain time, and in a certain place. (Laughter.)
mean, it wasn't offered to blacks? It wasn't offered, ordinarily?
is the MCAT?
is the Medical Aptitude Test in preparation for medical school.
In fact, what I was trying to describe for you: by that time,
Mississippi was so separate and segregated--let alone, not
thinking about trying to go to the University of Mississippi--that
in order for me to take the medical MCAT test, which is a
preparatory test for getting into medical school, I had to
make special arrangements to go to Millsaps, (laughter) at
a certain time, at a certain date, at a certain place and
be escorted. (Laughter.)
only way you'd be able to do it. (Laughter.)
(Laughter.) The only way you could be able to do it. So, let
alone thinking about--. University of Mississippi, of course,
was just out of the thinking. In fact, at that time, 98 [to]
99 percent of black physicians, which was about 150 in number,
were trained at either Meharry or Howard. And I guess less
than 1 percent of blacks was trained in nontraditional black
schools of this country. And of course, none of those in the
South at that time.
what did you go for, then?
Smith: I went
to Howard. I picked Howard. In fact, I was admitted to both
Meharry and Howard, but selected Howard.
of the best.
during those years you were at Howard, were you committed
to coming back to Mississippi or were you thinking of going
luckily I trained at Tougaloo. You know. And luckily, I had
the influence of Borinski and the influence of Tougaloo. At
that time, being sensitized--. I've told you a little bit
about, you know, how I grew up, and yet Tougaloo to me was
an abnormal environment in Mississippi at that time because
there was some modicum of integration, white faculty. No students,
but at least, you got The New York Times once a week.
(Laughter.) You got The Atlanta Constitution, and
you got The Times Picayune. And there were forums,
and there was some diversity. And there was an open discussion
of issues, and so, Tougaloo was really in some ways--well,
not some ways, it was--an artificial environment
for a black growing up in Mississippi in the fifties.
was a lot of discussion of social and political issues.
correct, a lot of discussion of social and political issues.
In fact, I was at Tougaloo during the time of the Emmett Till
case, and was one of those students who volunteered to go
to (inaudible) to help look for the body, and things like
that. You know. And so, we had those discussions even back
then. And talked about integration. I was also active at Tougaloo
in a group called the Intercollegiate Fellowship Council,
which was an interracial group between Tougaloo and Millsaps
students that quietly met on Sunday afternoons, and, of course,
I also was--.
you know Ed King and Janet[?], then?
Smith: I didn't
know Ed and Janet. I preceded Ed and Janet at Tougaloo. In
I mean from Millsaps. Oh, no, they're a different age.
Different age. Yeah. I didn't know them at the time, but Ed
and Janet was influenced. We have a common mentor, Dr. Ernst
Borinski, and some other people at Millsaps, but we were a
your Intercollegiate Council was organizing?
Intercollegiate Council was kind of like an unofficial, ad
hoc committee between Tougaloo and Millsaps. And I was
trying to remember who the contact person was with Borinski
on Millsaps campus. I don't remember who that was, now, but
it was sort of like an unofficial ad hoc group that
met. And later, I understand, when it became public, after
my time, that that group had to dissolve. You know. As Mississippi
found out about anything that suggested openness or diversity
or integration, then it had to go.
Very repressive. The fifties. So, it was very repressive then.
Smith: No question.
Smith: No question.
I mean, you know, the record speaks for itself. Mississippi.
I tell people all the time, I've loved Mississippi, have lived
here all my life. In fact, people used to kick me around because
I wore Mississippi on my breastplate, but it earned its reputation
for being the most oppressive state in the Union.
when you came back to Mississippi, after medical school, were
you beginning to form your own practice?
In fact, I did not plan to come back to Mississippi when I
did. In fact, I was telling you earlier here, off the tape,
how I would always come back to Mississippi. I'd always come
back home when a road trip to Mississippi was forty-something
hours and no place to sleep. (Laughter.) And I'd always come
back to Mississippi, oh, when Delta was the only thing flying
between Washington, and flying DC-3s or a train trip was about
three days. So, and, I'd always manage to get home, and I
always wanted to come home. Didn't know, or didn't feel, however,
that I could ever practice in Mississippi because blacks couldn't
have hospital privileges and there were certain restrictions
that I did not know, I did not feel that I personally would
be willing to put up with after I went to Washington and then
later on, Chicago, for additional training. But really, how
I got back to Mississippi is a very interesting story. I was
in a residency in OB-GYN. I didn't join the (inaudible) plan,
but the Berlin Crisis came up, and sort of like the Persian
Gulf Crisis, it went up and down, and they drafted me out
of my residency. Mississippi--I'll never forget that--was
asked to supply twelve physicians for a national draft of
almost 400. And although they were not training one black
a year, they came all the way up to Chicago and found me.
(Laughter.) Those were the kinds of tricks that Mississippi
claimed me. So, when I got here, you see, the Berlin Crisis
was over, and they didn't need me. (Laughter.)
brought you to Mississippi?
brought me to Mississippi to draft me. And then, they didn't
need me, and they put me off. They made the mistake of bringing
me here in July and telling me that the Berlin Crisis was
over, and "Now, we're going to keep you on hold until December."
And that's when I officially, sort of, hooked up with the
that brief period in 1960, about sixty-one, wasn't it?
How did you hook up?
hook-up was--. It tainted me, see? (Laughter.) I got tainted.
I started going to--. I took a job with the state. I did.
I took a job with the state, and then, at the same time decided
to do some volunteer work at Tougaloo, and started attending
mass meetings. At that time, they were having--. Medgar was
living, and they were having mass meetings two or three times
a week. So, I started doing that. (Laughter.) And--.
was the time they were trying to integrate downtown Jackson,
That was the time they were trying to integrate downtown Jackson,
and I was bootlegging, seeing whatever, and trying to help
out and do things like that. And that was the kiss of death.
That's what brought me to the attention of the powers that
be. And one day, I was volunteering at Tougaloo, and a Highway
Patrolman picked me up and took me all the way to the Director's
Office at my job and said, "Here's your nigger." (Laughter.)
delivered you. (Laughter.)
they fired you?
fire me then.
Didn't fire me at that point. Didn't. Gave me a warning. Gave
me a warning. In fact, my boss was a fellow by the name of
Jakewith[?]. He was what they called in Mississippi, "moderate,"
at that time. And told me, you know, "Just--." Gave me a fireside
chat. Told me, you know, "Mississippi don't permit that, boy."
And, "You're a good fellow." And in fact told me, said, (laughter),
you know, "Why don't you go back to your residency?" (Laughter.)
"Do you think--?" (Laughter.)
Smith: Be safe.
(Laughter.) Yeah. You think I'm kidding. It was a really funny
story. And later, Medgar Evers got shot, and I guess, at that
point, you know, I had been educated. I guess I won't say,
"educated," but I got a real feel for home and understood,
for the first time, I guess, during that year, what it truly
meant to be black in Mississippi, and underprivileged, and
poor, and without medical care, and saw people by the hundreds
and really thousands go without medical care. Saw, what I
call, a third-world country. Worms. Everything. Anemia. Requiring
of deposits. Some hospitals wouldn't admit blacks at all.
Others, a dingy, segregated ward.
you working in Jackson, then?
you know, I--.
by that time, you know, I was going around and seeing [if]
what people were telling me, was, whether, you know, it was
actually true. And then that's some of the things that I observed.
So, when Medgar was killed, I answered a call by the leadership
of some physicians from the National Medical Association to
come to the AMA national meeting in Atlantic City. And a group
of black as well as white physicians, who represented different
interests, picketed the AMA, and I became one of the stars
of the show, although it was a national problem,
because I was from Mississippi, working at a segregated hospital.
Couldn't have full hospital privileges, and all the things
that I just alluded to about the wide disparities of morbidity
statistics among blacks and whites in Mississippi.
you picketing the AMA because they represented--? They were
basically the white association, and they represented the
status quo? Or were you just bringing attention to the issues?
some of both. One of the ways hospitals kept segregation,
kept blacks off their staff, is requiring you to be a member
of the AMA. And to be a member of the AMA, you had to have
the signatures (laughter) of three white physicians. (Laughter.)
And so, it was both. And asking AMA to come out against, you
know, segregation in hospitals. And full privileges for blacks.
The whole nine yards.
Did you form a group from--? Well, that was a group.
We formed a group called the Medical Committee for Civil Rights.
That was that group in 1963, that picketed the AMA.
Did that continue?
it continued, and I wasn't a part of the second picket, but
they picketed again the headquarters in Chicago. That was
sixty-three. Well, let me also bring to your attention that
Mississippi had run, besides the problem--. There were several
problems in Mississippi. Number one: they had trained very
few black physicians, period. As I told you, there was very
few, period. Those that had come back, you
know, after Brown v. [Board of] Education was passed,
and Mississippi started passing all those segregation laws,
many of those physicians picked up their bags and left. And
thirdly, nobody came back. So, you know, from a period of,
say, around the early 1900s to the early 1960s, Mississippi
didn't recruit a single black physician. In fact, Dr. Anderson
and myself were the only--.
only ones in the state?
came back, during that time.
the only ones.
only ones that came back. (Laughter.) We were native Mississippians
who came back. You know, these guys decided, "We're going
to go." You know. "We're not going to put up with that bullshit."
You know. "We're just going to go to greener pastures." You
know. They weren't committed. Like, for instance, when I came
back, I left Hyde Park. People thought I had lost my mind.
(Laughter.) Because I said, "I'm going back to Mississippi."
I was going back home, obviously. And it was supposed to be
a two-hour reception that went into the early hours of that
morning because they didn't believe that I honestly was going
to come back to Mississippi.
They didn't believe that you were going to put up with it?
I mean, it was people feeling sorry for me. In fact, there
were some people who were more sensitive to Mississippi than
I was. I shall never forget, a white nurse (laughter) at Cook
County stole a bag of drugs from the county hospital and told
me, said, "You're going to need this when you go back to Mississippi."
(Laughter.) I mean, she filled that bag up with penicillin,
with immunization shots. And she had told me about some mission
trips she had been on. And she says, "Young man." Says, "Take
these back to Mississippi with you." (Laughter.)
won't have anything else. (Laughter.)
Smith: I think
about that. (Laughter.)
knew you'd need supplies because you wouldn't have any, where
you were going. (Laughter.) And she understood it better than
you did. Yeah.
understood it. She understood it better than me because, you
know, I mean, this is a fact. I shall never forget that. (Laughter.)
when you came back in that sixty-three, sixty-four period,
was that when you all started developing the Medical Committee
for Human Rights? Or?
the Medical Committee for Human Rights grew out of the fact--that
I was talking to you about--the sparsity of black doctors.
We were down to about twenty-five [or] thirty-five practicing
physicians in the state. Many of these black physicians had
no--. You know, had loans. They were tied into the system
and was afraid to step out of order, like everybody else.
In fact, they were afraid to treat, sometimes, controversial
blacks, particularly white civil rights workers, or anybody
who was identified as white civil rights workers. There was
only a few of us who would treat you all. (Laughter.) You
were anathema. (Laughter.)
so, how the Medical Committee for Human Rights was formed
was the fact that I had this huge practice of civil rights
workers and other local people who were identified as human
rights activists, local human rights activists;
and so, there was this announcement about the summer project
of sixty-four. And I said, "What in the hell are we going
to do with all these folks?" I mean. (Laughter.) And so, Dr.
Anderson and I met with a fellow called Bob Moses who had
some national contacts. And he contacted someone in the National
Council of Churches. So, the weeks before the summer project
was supposed to start, some representatives from the National
Council of Churches, Physicians' Forum, Dr. Anderson, myself,
and another local physician called Dr. Britton[?] met in my
office to form the Medical Committee for Human Rights. We'll
call it the Southern Arm of the Medical Committee for Human
Rights because I don't know what was going on in New York
at the time. But that was the Southern Arm, and I was named,
or asked, to coordinate the southern aspects of that. So,
I became the leader for this, what was really going on in
Mississippi. In fact, I sponsored all those doctors who came
down to Mississippi during sixty-four.
They were doctors, nurses,--.
every--. I mean, not every, but most of any
of the allied health disciplines that you can name was a part
of that group. We had some of everybody through here.
was it--? The mandate was primarily to treat the civil rights
workers or to look at local conditions?
the mandate--. There were several mandates. The Medical Committee
for Human Rights really became the medical arm of the civil
rights movement, whose mandates, number one, was to take care
of civil rights workers and local community people who could
not receive appropriate and adequate medical care; to assess
medical conditions in the community; to challenge segregated
waiting rooms and doctors' offices and in physicians' offices
to try to provide support to local cooperative physicians,
be they black or white. Then, we had, as time went on, our
mission expanded in several communities, such as Holmes County.
And that's how we ended up in Holmes County. A group in Tchula
built a community center and some local people were building
community centers, you know, that grew out of the summer project
of sixty-four. So, they asked the Medical Committee for Human
Rights to come to Holmes County to do a medical clinic. And--.
was there when I was there in sixty-six.
And that's where Thursdays come in. (Laughter.) You remember?
That's where the Thursdays came in. We had two nurses, Josephine
Despoty[?] and Helen (inaudible). Well, we had more than that.
Weatherly and Helena.
and that's awful. Turn that thing. Jo. God, I--. Let's just
say four nurses.
Jo there for about a year by herself? I think. Then, the others.
Yeah. Two others.
There were two others, and I'd go up on Thursdays, you know,
to write 'scripts and to, well, I was overseeing the clinic.
Of course, you know, and so, I made some interesting observations
going up there.
the fact that I'd go up and write prescriptions that people
couldn't get filled. People would come into the Community
Center and sit all day just to keep warm in the winter time,
that there were so many needs other than what I was trained
to render in medical school, like direct medical care, social
services, legal services. People had been denied benefits
under social security. People had been denied benefits for
welfare. You know. They needed food stamps, clean water, food,
at that time. Oh, there were pot-bellies. There were just
children--. Thirty to 40 percent of kids had intestinal parasites.
Infant mortality rate was around 60 percent. God! Just so
many. Maternal mortality rate was out of this world.
there was also--. There were no hospitals.
No. Those kinds of things. So, then, after doing that for
a while, I went to the Medical Committee for Human Rights
and said to the Medical Committee for Human Rights, "We need
to meet." And we did meet that December. It's interesting.
Just like in any other great movement, there are great people.
And there were so many great physicians and great nurses,
and other allied health personnel who gathered at that time,
but there were some people who tended to fall in love with
Mississippi. And, you know, Les Falk[?], Jack Geiger[?], Count
Gibson[?]. I was trying to think of the boy that did--. Tom
Levin[?]. Aaron Wells[?]. God, just so many. Another girl
I was trying to think of.
Cunningham[?], Ellen Weathersby[?]. They were just a group
of fantastic people and others. Joe Martin[?]. Please, I shouldn't
call names, because I can think of about a dozen more names
of people that I just can't call right off the top of my head,
but absolutely fantastic people. And we met, in Greenville
in December that year.
And I told them and talked to them about the experiences that
I had with that medical clinic, and that the only solution
that I could see would be to create a new institution for
which we had not had, or I had not had and didn't know how
it could be funded and didn't know of any model of any kind
of that kind of institution in the whole country. But an institution
that brought not only direct medical services, but an institution
that would combine some of the other social service skills,
literacy skills. The whole nine yards.
talking about a very comprehensive clinic that would also
be a helping services and something that would bring it all
under one roof. That didn't exist.
didn't exist, and there was no model in the country. Or, Jack
Geiger talked about, he had South African experiences, and
he talked about the fact of a health center thing from South
Africa. But, of course, I didn't know anything about South
Africa. I knew what Mississippi needed, and from that meeting,
we came up with the idea of trying to put together a comprehensive
package which we had no idea how it would be funded or who
would sponsor it, or what have you. But out of that grew the
concept of neighborhood health centers, of comprehensive health
centers, that grew out, really, of the Mileston[?] (inaudible)
experience that the medical committee had had, beginning with
the summer of sixty-four.
I'm going to turn over the tape.
(End of tape one, side one.
The interview continues on tape one, side two.)
the medical services, you observed every kind of need that
kind of need that you could imagine. That [you] could humanly
you didn't see this as occurring anywhere in the country,
at that point.
it wasn't occurring anywhere in the country. In fact, it was
just a brainstorming session that brought it about. Luckily,
luckily, luckily, the Office of Economic Opportunity the following
year came out with, you know, Head Start. In fact, they had
a medical component to Head Start, and we decided, and Jack
and Count[?] getting Tufts to sponsor it, came [up] with the
idea of presenting this package to OEO to do first a northern
project in Columbia Point[?] in Boston, and a southern site
which we knew was going to be in Mississippi, but we didn't
say Mississippi because of southern politics at the time.
We knew it would be blocked for a long time. It's a long story
on how it evolved in Mound Bayou, but the southern site really
became Mound Bayou, with Tufts sponsorship. In fact, Jack
was a Fellow at Harvard at the time, and he and Count formed
a marriage. Count was chairman of the Department of Preventive
Medicine at Tufts.
was the name? Count?
Count Gibson was chairman of the Department of Preventive
Medicine at Tufts, and Jack was a Fellow at Harvard at the
time, and they formed a marriage. Jack left Harvard to go
to Tufts to work with this project. In fact, although Jack
gets the credit for spearheading it, but had not Count, a
fellow who had a tremendous reputation and chairman of the
Preventive Medicine at Tufts, and who spoke with a southern
He was from Georgia. (Laughter.) He was from Georgia.
that Count, like C-O-U-N-T?
Like the count.
I mean, you couldn't mistake him. You know. He was [a] long,
tall, white, southerner with a southern accent. (Laughter.)
And of course, Jack was a Jewish boy, reared in New York City,
son of the former president of the National Blood Bank Association,
but had lived in Harlem and by Mississippi's term was a "flaming
liberal." (Laughter.) But a very dedicated, hard-working young
fellow that I formed a very close relationship with him and
was very easy to work with.
Mound Bayou chosen partly because it was an all-black community
with a long history of land?
it was chosen for several reasons. It was chosen because at
that time, people were still getting their butts beat, and
there was hostility, and we knew that we was going to have
to have an integrated staff. And it seemed safe. But we made
a trip to Mound Bayou. I'll tell you why. That was not the
only reason. Really, Jack wanted to go to an integrated community
that had the same morbidity statistics, but how Mound Bayou
happened to have been chosen was the fact that after we found
out that we were going to get OEO money, there was no OEO
money for new construction. They said they would give you
money for renovation. And one of the casualties of the civil
rights movement was a college in Jackson called Campbell College.
And Campbell had moved to Mound Bayou in the struggle, started
to build a new college up there and somehow went under and
went defunct. We went up there to look at their structure
to use that as renovation. When we got to Mound Bayou, investigating
the Campbell College project, we learned that the two black
hospitals there, two black hospitals, Tabourin[?] and Sarah
Brown[?], that had a longstanding history of serving blacks
in that area in that multi-county, Delta area. In fact, you
could say that they had one of the first HMOs in the country
because people paid twenty-five and fifty cents, but the state
health care commission had finally said to these hospitals
that they did not meet minimal standards, and that they were
to be closed. And the leadership of Mound Bayou delivered
a very compassionate plea to us on a trip there. It was kind
of like an industry trip. I was a part of that group, and
they talked about the glorious history of Mound Bayou, and
the founders of Mound Bayou, and it was the jewel of the Delta.
And it had always had great medical care there and they knew
that the Lord was going to send some help, and we was just
that help. (Laughter.)
they gave a real pitch to you.
gave a real pitch.
is a historic town, though. Isn't it?
I mean, everything that they said was correct. And it just
seemed at that point like the natural and great place to be.
this is in sixty-four? Or sixty-five?
your idea was to form a model clinic. This would be the beginning
of something here in Mississippi and also up in Boston, but
it would be a beginning of a model for the country in a way.
Or at least, certainly for the South, of services.
it turned out to be a model. Columbia Point had started the
year before, and it was planned that way. It was something
new. Columbia Point was started in a low-income area of Boston,
and had the support of the power structure and other supportive
human services, and we would see how that would go and learn
from that before we attempted to do Mound Bayou.
that an inter-racial community?
Columbia Point? Yes. Mm-hm. And so, Columbia Point had really
been operational eighteen months and two years actually before
we attempted Mound Bayou.
you have massive opposition in terms of funding it? And in
terms of having it exist? From the white power structure?
yes. I mean, you just can't imagine. I mean,
you just can't imagine.
wanted to destroy it before it began?
yeah. And there were counter-ploy activities. I am as sure
as I'm sitting here that there were paid blacks (laughter)
as well as whites.
represented a real threat?
Smith: It represented
a real threat.
you have a lot of support from the community there?
there was always support from the community. You ought to
interview a lady by the name of L.C. Dorsey[?]. Once you interview
her, you can see what kind of support [was] there. (Laughter.)
She could tell you. Yeah. There was no question.
She's from that area?
from that area. She was a sharecropper. But she is a good
example of the strength that was there.
She worked closely with Mrs. Dahmer?
yes. Oh, yes. Mm-hm.
always was strong. She ran it later, didn't she?
She ran it later. Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
were you finally able to get OEO funds, despite all this opposition?
yeah. I mean, in fact, after it finally came through, and
Meharry had a grant there, too, I think the OEO funds were
something like thirteen million dollars. It was ten or twelve
million. Something like that. I don't recall the exact numbers.
You can look it up, but, then, you know, that really turned
on the mill. (Laughter.)
mean the opposition?
opposition mill. Yeah. That little, small black town with
twelve million dollars, ten million dollars.
were a real threat.
they tried to destroy it?
were serving that immediate community? Or were you serving--?
seventeen counties. Serving seventeen counties. Yeah.
what was the mandate of this? Health and--?
environmental, social, legal services. The whole nine yards.
Dental. Pharmacy. Mm-hm.
that huge opposition tried to destroy it, but it continued
through the sixties and seventies, didn't it?
Smith: It continued
through the sixties, and despite opposition and every imaginable
attempt to destroy it. It has survived in some modicum way
and has continued to provide some health care.
there threats of violence against it?
were threats of violence and the whole nine yards.
it has continued?
Smith: It has
continued. Yes. It has continued.
how do you feel that the--? I didn't realize that it was seventeen
counties. That's really very impressive. So, it was throughout
the Delta. Yes.
How do people assess the success of it in terms of actually
serving some of those needs?
it has made a tremendous impact on health, not only in the
area but in the state. It has produced a lot of positions:
dentists, other paraprofessionals. Many of them are there
now working in the center and running it. It's just--.
mean it encouraged people to go into--?
yeah. Yes. Mm-hm.
that's been a model for the rest of the country?
correct. In fact, I'm happy to tell you now, there are twenty-two
or twenty-three, now, health centers in the state serving
several 100,000 people a year and over 3,000 centers nationally.
are similar one-stop, multi-purpose centers?
centers whose idea grew out of the thoughts and facts of the
struggle of Mississippi's civil rights movement of the sixties.
That's a tremendous victory that people often aren't aware
of, particularly. But, is the work that you've done in Jackson
related to that? I know you are working at a community clinic
right now and have been for many years. Right?
I have been active off and on in some aspect of that work
for my whole career. In fact, not only did I work in initiating
Mound Bayou, but was involved in several others such as Jackson-Hinds.
Our own Central Mississippi Madison (inaudible) which is now
Carmichael Clinic in Canton and the Aaron Henry Health Center
one that you work with now, what is that called?
Mississippi Health Center.
it a combination of the health? Is there a preventive aspect
to it, too?
There's a preventive aspect. We don't have 330[?] funds, but
we are what they call a federal health center, qualified health
we do all the things that health centers do, but we do not
have federal funds.
that include these other aspects that you were talking about
with Mound Bayou? The environmental and occupational health
and all the other aspects, too?
It is. Mm-hm.
how do you survive without federal money?
Smith: We do
have some cost reimbursement that helps us.
the Medical Committee actually led to one of the benefits,
one of the health benefits that was tremendously meaningful.
I look at Holmes County because I've been back recently, and
I see in part the enormous needs that are still there, because,
even though things are [quote] "integrated," the level of
care is very low. I don't know if they are connected to--.
I don't know if that area of Mississippi is connected to a
Just last year, they were funded for a center at Lexington,
called Mallory. See?
yes. On the Saints?
So, they are coming under the umbrella, and I am sure if it
is as successful as it has been in other communities, that
it will make a difference.
Medical Committee itself, a lot of those doctors--. I have
come across people who have gone on and continued to be active,
as you have: lifelong. It seems that the coming to Mississippi
and the learning from here has stimulated a lot within the
whole health professions.
it has stimulated changes in national health legislation.
planning legislation being more all-inclusive. It has stimulated
consumer participation in national health legislation. It
has had a tremendous influence on community health training
programs and medical schools and in family medicine programs.
what way with the family medicine [programs]?
the concept of the entire community and community involvement
and consumer education and participation in making decisions.
So that all comes out of here?
Smith: It all
comes out of here.
for example, in your health center, is there a community involvement
and a board in actually running the center?
does that work?
Smith: We have
a board that runs the center.
these are people from?
the community. Yes.
this is true of all of these?
this is true of all the centers.
Dr. Bob, I know you've had a long day. (Laughter.) Just tell
me, are you continuing to teach? Are you continuing to nurture
I continue to spend Thursday mornings in the Department of
Family Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center,
now. I've just been doing it for years, and have had some,
of course, early-on teaching involvement in the Department
of Community Medicine at Tufts. And have had a wonderful program,
also, with Brown and Tougaloo.
University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Tougaloo.
mean, with the medical?
careers. Yes. We've had a program where we have taken Brown's
students in our center for clerkships and Tougaloo students
have gone to Brown to medical school. In fact, Brown has perhaps
trained a dozen or more of our students into medicine.
they give scholarships?
and the whole nine yards. Mm-hm.
compared to when you were beginning here, what is there in
terms of the numbers of black doctors and medical personnel
in the state?
are probably close to 300 black doctors in the state, now.
Still a small number, but growing.
Smith: A change.
are the universities like USM and Ole Miss open, more?
but still not training enough. The numbers do not reflect
the population of the state, by far.
Are people organizing around that?
one of the big issues that's yet to be solved is to increase
the numbers of minorities trained at universities.
I'd like to thank you very much. I think there's a lot more
to be discussed. But let me just ask you one question about
the preventive health component of these centers. Is there
work being done around diet and around, you know, care that's
not only emergency care or not only when you're already sick,
but you know, diet, exercise. You know, those kinds of things.
enough. You know. Our first centers was very high on that,
and a lot of that aspect of it was defunded.
briefly funded at the beginning?
it was briefly funded at the beginning and then defunded.
And I am certain, as most statistics would suggest, that health
education around diet, exercise and other preventive measures
are what's going to be needed in order to show some decrease
in our morbidity statistics. That there is going to be more
of a push to get that back under the umbrella.
the infant mortality gone down?
infant mortality has gone down to, I would say, almost respectable
levels. You know. In some counties, the infant mortality rates
were up around 60 per thousand, and I guess in our worst county,
it's now down to maybe 16, but now, statewide it's 13, 14
percent, which is still too high. We are still only second
or third from the bottom.
Smith: In the
country. Still too high, but way, way from where we started.
Oh, yes. And some of that disparity reflects the minority
it gone up a great deal?
it's not gone up, but the minority decrease has not kept pace
with the white decrease, so that means that, say, if you could
take minorities out of Mississippi's infant mortality rate,
Mississippi's white infant mortality rate would probably reflect
more the national norm.
see. Do the people who were originally part of the medical
committee, have people stayed? Is there any network nationally
to talk about some of these issues? Or do people stay [in]
touch at all? Or is that kind of gone?
it's kind of gone. We had a thirtieth anniversary celebration,
I guess, a few years ago up in--. And it sort of kind of petered--.
I want to thank you very much, Dr. Bob. I really appreciate
it, and we will keep [in] touch.
(End of the interview.)