Thursday, May 27, 2010

Portland's first African-American medical men

So I've been reading about Dr. DeNorval Unthank, M.D., whom I had mistakenly believed was Portland's first African-American physician. Turns out that one J.A. Merriman, M.D., had set up shop in Portland in 1903 and that he was joined in 1909 by Stanley Lucas, M.D., a native of Kingston, Jamaica. We read briefly about Merriman and Lucas in The history of Portland's African American Community (1805 to the present), written in 1993 by the Bureau of Planning of the City of Portland. We also learn that Hugh A. Bell, D.M.D., and Elbert Booker, D.M.D., were the city's first African-American dentists, arriving in 1924 and 1927 respectively.

I had wondered what persuasive power could have brought Unthank to Portland in 1929, just three years after Oregon had finally amended its constitution to allow blacks to permanently settle here, and seven years after W.M. Pierce had made it into the governor's mansion with the overt support of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1929, Merriman had almost certainly started to consider retirement (he appears to have retired in 1931). A 1902 graduate of Rush Medical College, he must have recognized the deep need for a black physician to care for the city's black population of about 1,000 souls. Unthank, a graduate of Howard University who had taken postgraduate training at Kansas, must have respected and heeded the advice of such an esteemed colleague. What might Merriman have told Unthank to get him to agree to come? "It's not that bad"? "You'll have about 1,000 patients that will be yours alone to treat"? "The fishing is really good"?

And what would have possessed Merriman to come West from Rush? A notable medical university, Rush was graduating doctors who were going on to positions of prominence in their communities--including Portland (A.D. Bevan being a great example). Did a fellow Rush alum bring Merriman out to tend to the blacks, who could not be treated in white hospitals at that time? The History at least gives us some idea of why Stanley Lucas came to the city: he had been hired by the Northern Railroad Company, which presumably had a number of African-American workers.

In the face of not only discrimination but often violent harassment, these men stood by Portland's small African-American community and provided desperately needed health care services. It's truly remarkable.

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