Broward’s Black medical pioneers’ impact on local community still felt today
Dr. James Franklin Sistrunk
By Charles Moseley
Despite facing tremendous odds in their day to day struggle to practice medicine in the Jim Crow South, African American medical practitioners waged a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, they fought to provide medical care for an ever increasing Black population; on the other hand, as community leaders, they led the war against racism and social injustice.
For their efforts, the names Sistrunk, Mizell, Brown, Shirley and Bass will be indelibly etched in the annals of time – for their tireless community service, which are still having a far reaching impact on Broward County’s African American community. They stand today as the forbearers of Black medicine and foot soldiers in the battle for racial equality during the early days of the civil rights movement. As a result of their tireless efforts, to-day, African Americans are represented in every facet of the medical industry throughout South Florida.
Although today’s healthcare issues are front and center on the minds of most Americans as well as news headlines across the nation, they pale in comparison to the healthcare issues which faced African Americans during the early years of the 20th century. As African Americans migrated to South Florida from Georgia and South Carolina in search of better job opportunities, the need for additional doctors grew to meet medical needs of the expanding population of Blacks arriving in Broward County.
In 1921, a young Black doctor from Midway, Ga. by the name of James Franklin Sistrunk arrived in Fort Lauderdale. Sistrunk was a graduate of the Meharry School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. The World War I Army veteran moved south from Dunnellon, Fla., marking the beginning of a new era in medical history. Although Sistrunk receives credit by many for opening the first medical office to treat Blacks in Broward County; according to the book titled, My Soul is a Witness: A History of Black Fort Lauderdale, written by Deborah Work, a physician by the name of Dr. Henry H. Green reportedly practiced medicine in Lauderdale two years before Sistrunk arrived.
He reportedly delivered some 5,000 babies during the course of his career. Today, Northwest Sixth Street, which runs through the historically African American community in Fort Lauderdale, is named Sistrunk Boulevard and the annual Sis-trunk Festival which is celebrated during Black History Month in February; both in ho-nor of Dr. Sistrunk, who died in 1966.
From the beginning, Sistrunk was denied an opportunity to practice medicine at area hospitals which were reserved for whites only. Undeterred, Sistrunk joined forces some years later with fellow surgeon Von D. Mizell to establish a hospital where Black patients could receive medical treatment. It became known as Provident Hospital in 1938. It remained open until the mid 1960’s. By then, Blacks had been allowed to receive medical treatment at Broward General Hospital.
Sistrunk was a reserved man with a mild mannered temperament; by contrast Mizell was anything but easy going. He displayed a pitbull tenacity and was willing to take on the white establishment at every turn – irrespective of the Jim Crow laws… Mizell was a World War II Army veteran who served in the medical corp. Throughout his adult life he was somewhat of a one-man freedom fighter who declared war on “Jim Crow”. Mizell helped form the Fort Lauderdale Branch of the NAACP. Whether he was shoulder-to-shoulder with former civil rights leader Eula Johnson protesting the racial injustice of the practice of closing so-called “Colored Schools” earlier in the year so that students could work as migrant laborers during the 1940’s and 1950’s on white-owned farms or leading a group of Blacks during “wade-in” protests in order to integrate Fort Lauder-dale Beach in the early 60’s; Mizell was at the forefront of the civil rights struggle, risking his personal safety and professional career in the name of justice. Mizell, along with Sis-trunk and Dr. Calvin H. Shirley, were successful parties in a class action lawsuit filed against Broward General Hospital. For many years they would help one another handle their patient load.
Lillian Small joined the staff of Dr. Mizell shortly after graduating from Hampton University. She worked as his personal secretary and office manager for 10 years.
“Many people were unaware that Dr. Mizell owned a hospital in Belle Glade, Fla., named Carver Memorial Hospital. Every Wednesday on his day off here, he would travel to Belle Glade to treat patients, many of whom were migrant farm workers. He would accept produce from those who were unable to pay and bring it back to Fort Lauderdale, where he often gave it to needy patients,” said Small.
After a decade-long legal battle, they finally gained hospital privileges, allowing them the right to treat patients at Broward General Hospital. Von D. Mizell died of cancer in 1966 – a fallen soldier, at the age of 75. The Von D. Mizell Library on Sistrunk Boulevard is named in his honor.
Dr. Calvin H. Shirley’s medical career in Fort Lauderdale almost never began. He originally had not planned to practice medicine here but decided to do so after Dr. Mizell persuaded him to set up a practice in a building he owned. The young doctor was actually on his way to Key West to visit his father, who was an Episcopal priest there. By the time he began practicing in Fort Lauderdale in 1949 he had already served in World War II in the United States Navy. His orders found him in the South Pacific.
For over 55 years Dr. Shirley practiced medicine in Broward County, delivering some 6,000 babies from as far north as Delray Beach to as far south as Hallandale Beach. During the early years, Dr. Shirley and Dr. Sistrunk acted as team trainers for the Dillard High School football team during the games and were instrumental in securing the team’s first new uniforms as well as for the band that had relied on hand-me-down equipment from the white schools in the area. Shirley said that the biggest obstacle he faced throughout his medical career was fighting against a system which discriminated against him and his peers because of their race.
“Our biggest challenge was racism. We treated patients who had everything from gun shot wounds to delivering babies; even though we specialized in a particular facet of medicine we knew we had to treat patients regardless of their medical condition. We paved the way for the Black doctors of today who now have privileges to practice medicine wherever they want.”
Dr. Shirley passed away in 2012. Two of his children followed in his footsteps and are presently working in the healthcare profession. Jasmin Shirley is an administrator with Broward Health and is in charge of the hospital’s community outreach facilities. Dr. Carmen Shirley-Mack is in private practice in Fort Lauderdale.
Dr. William Morris, Dr. Edwin Hamilton and Dr. Leonard Bass are all Florida A & M University alumni. They all followed the first wave of Black medical pioneers; Sistrunk, Mizell, Walker, and Shirley by establishing their own thriving private practices during the 1960’s.They have made their own mark as healthcare professionals in the community. All of these doctors are still providing medical service in Broward County.
In 1982 Dr. Arleen Haywood established the first pediatric office operated by an African American woman and 32 years later she still oversees a thriving private practice in Plantation.
Dr. Hamilton established quite a few precedents over the course of his practice which has spanned over half a century, which include his appointment as the first Black President of the American Cancer Society, President of Broward County Medical Association and Chief of Surgery at Broward General Hospital.
“Broward General Hospital was established in the 1930’s. It was during the 1960’s when the hospital finally was integrated so my appointment as Chief of Surgery was a single sign in that it gave a sense of accomplishment to the position by someone representing the minority community. I do not believe that I was elected Chief of Surgery primarily because I was Black-it went beyond that. It gave me a sense of being thrust into a position of high responsibility in the medical community of Broward.”
Today there are over 200 practicing physicians estimated to represent the African Diaspora throughout Broward County. These doctors are specializing in every facet of medicine imaginable. They owe a great debt of gratitude to those Black pioneers whose shoulders they stand upon today. Broward’s Black medical pioneers did not stop until the barriers of racism and walls of social injustice were torn down. The Westside Gazette Newspaper proudly salutes our heroes and sheroes during the celebration of the Black History Month 2014.