Cone Health’s declaration of accountability corrects sins of the pastDeborah H. Barnes, Ph.D. / September 23, 2016
Share this article:On Thursday, September 15, 2016 Cone Health Board of Trustees celebrated the groundbreaking efforts of local African American physicians and dentists who sought to integrate the medical facilities at Cone Hospital in the 1960s. Numbering among the medical professionals, who sued the segregated hospital for access, was my father, Milton H. Barnes, a Greensboro dentist. He and other civically minded, socially active colleagues and friends physicians Drs.Girardeau Alexander, A.V. Blount, Jr., F. E. Davis, Walter J. Hughes, Norman N. Jones, E.C. Noel; dentists Drs. Lloyd Miller and George C. Simkins, (in whose name the lawsuit was levied) and patients, Donald R. Lyons, and A. J. Taylor insisted that public serving institutions, which received federal funding, be opened to and serve all (taxpaying) citizens, specifically, in this case, Blacks.
In 1962 when the suit was filed, most of Greensboro’s institutions and facilities were still racially segregated and holding the line against the boycotts, demonstrations, union organizing and various forms of civil unrest that were occurring everywhere. Since its opening, Cone Hospital had denied African American doctors and dentists the opportunity to practice medicine there and refused to admit their patients. Adopting the NAACP’s tried and true protocol for Civil Rights litigation, the men set out to fight Jim Crow in the courts. Remarkably, within a year, their lawsuit, Simkins v Cone Hospital, had changed the law of the land, assuring equitable access, and expanded health care options for those African Americans who could afford them.There is no way to describe the pride and joy I felt upon hearing my father publically lauded for his civic efforts more than forty years after his passing. I grew nostalgic at the reading of the litigants’ names, remembering my childhood affection for this group of stouthearted men. The 1960’s and 1970’s were turbulent, raucous and perilous times. In those dangerous days, any form resistance to Black oppression could invite retribution from Whites. Undaunted, these men provided the model for what socially responsible community leaders should be- strong, fearless, respectable. These educated, professional men believed themselves responsible for insuring access and opportunity for all Blacks, especially those who would not or could not afford to risk their lives and livelihoods to secure their civil rights.
This important case, which rendered state of the art health care available to all, has gone largely unremarked until now. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that almost all of its architects for radical social change have passed on. Indeed, only one of the original litigants is still alive, Dr. Alvin Blount, and only one spouse of a plaintiff, Mrs. Shirley M. Barnes, my mother. To his credit, Dr. Blount’s warmhearted geniality has encouraged a new generation of health care providers to recover and celebrate the saga of Greensboro’s civic transformation. This story may also have faded from memory because Civil Rights Law lacks the heightened cinematic drama of confrontational racism, which media has rendered into instantly recognizable memes. Everyone has seen the pictures of the hoses, the dogs and raging segregationists on horseback tramplinghymn singing Blacks in church clothes. Until now, we had become satisfied to tell (and retell) a single, memetic episode of Greensboro’s fight against racism. Recognition of Simkins v Cone
Hospital reminds us that the Black Power movement deployed myriad forms of resistance and relied upon a host of courageous people to make the changes that are now taken for granted as a matter of fact.
I am heartened that Cone Health publically celebrated this valiant group of unsung leaders and has endowed $250,000 in scholarships for aspiring African American healthcare professionals. I also personally appreciated their apology, which made headlines. While it is now quite common for formerly segregated institutions to include people of color among its human resources and as sought after consumers, it is altogether uncommon for them to admit their error and to apologize for the racist slight. I was significantly moved by CEO Terrence Akin’s heartfelt, sincere apology for Cone Hospital’s exclusion of certified Black professionals and patients from its facilities. It was, I believe, a necessary step toward healing many of Greensboro’s ancient wounds, many of which remain unreconciled.
In his closing comments, Dr. Blount sagely advised us to “move on” from our troubled past toward a multicultural future of collaboration. After hearing Cone Health’s declaration of accountability and its attendant determination to honor and include the Black community it once ignored, I, for one, am ready to do just that.
Deborah H. Barnes is a Greensboro resident who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. She earned a Ph.D. in English from Howard University and specializes in the literature of Black women writers.