A timeline along the wall of the Historic Lyric Theater’s current exhibit, on Miami’s black health care history, looks like an EKG. The first beat of it, beginning in 1896, belongs to the city’s first black doctor, Dr. Rivers.
“It starts with Dr. Rivers and we still haven't gotten his first name yet,” says Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives and chair of the committee that assembled pieces for the show, The Evolution of Black Health Care In Miami-Dade County From 1896-2018, In Parallel With Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Evolution.
Rivers arrived in Miami just as Flagler’s railroad was unfurling south. Laborers pinned the tracks into coral rock, carving a steel-and-wood vein in the sand. It was brutal work, done in large part by conscripted African American and black Caribbean labor. Fields believes that Rivers was recruited to treat black laborers. That same year, Dr. James M. Jackson, who was white, was hired by the railroad company to treat white workers.
Jackson went on to become the founder and namesake for Jackson Health system.
And Rivers’ first name became a mystery.
The exhibit is a collection of photographs, newspaper clippings and other artifacts now on display at the Historic Lyric Theater in Overtown. It's a partnership with Jackson Health System, which celebrates the centennial of Jackson Memorial Hospital this year. The history on display acknowledges the racism that shut Miami’s black community out of Jackson for too long. And it celebrates the health care providers who fought against that barrier and cared for their own.
For example, the worn leather midwife’s bag on one pedestal is a touchstone to the important role of the women who brought black children into the world, and a reminder that black women couldn’t give birth at Jackson until it opened its first segregated maternity ward in 1953.
“I was thinking of the old West African proverb: ‘until the lion tells his tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ So I became part of, in my mind, part of the lion's tale,” says Dr. George Simpson, who is both a subject of and contributor to the exhibit.
Simpson made a name for himself in 1958 as Florida’s first black board-certified general surgeon. A couple of years later, he became the first black general surgeon at Jackson.
“’First’ is fine, but ‘only’ used to bother me,” says Simpson, now retired.
His wife, Dr. Dazelle Simpson, also broke ground. One of the 1950s newspaper articles on display is a profile of her with the headline, “Miami’s First Negro Woman Doctor Is Pediatrician: Husband’s M.D. Too.”
Before the civil rights movement, black doctors and their patients weren’t allowed into white doctor’s offices and hospitals “because of custom and law,” says Fields.
The stigma from that segregation affected how white and black people saw black doctors, Simpson says. “Because, having no other images in the community to model after, black physicians, in a way, had to prove to their own people that they could do whatever the white physicians could do."
Simpson fought to create opportunities for his patients and his peers. He became a leader in the local civil rights movement. He integrated lunch counters—including the hospital cafeteria. And he learned non-violent resistance from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself when King visited Miami’s black churches.
“One of the things that you'll find out in the black community, because they did not have a fear of losing jobs, is that your clergyman and your doctors, dentists, physicians, you name it—they were the ones who were in the forefront of the civil rights movement,” says Carol Davis Henley Byrd, who worked on the collection and whose father was a dentist in segregated Miami. Her dad helped convince the Miami Police Department to enlist its first black patrolmen. They held roll call in the back of the dental office.
There’s a space in the exhibit, set up like a waiting room, that pays homage to Miami’s pioneering black pharmacists.
“Even though some pharmacists did not have a doctoral degree, they were referred to as doctor,” says Bernadette Portier, whose father was a pharmacist. She points out that pharmacists were often more accessible than physicians under segregation—and more affordable. “Many people [could not] afford to go to a doctor. Pharmacists became their doctors back in those days.”
That so many of the milestones of black medicine in Miami were born of adversity and depravation is a theme throughout the exhibit.
At the back of the exhibit, a picture of Dr. Samuel Johnson hangs. That was Fields' uncle.
At some point in the 1930s, he had a patient—a black patient—with a broken knee cap. He brought the patient to Jackson, where they had to wait in the segregated wooden shanties on the hospital grounds. It took a day to get the patient in for an x-ray. Johnson had to wait outside, because he was black.
“And then once they did the x-rays, he asked to see them,” Fields recalls her uncle telling her. “They said, ‘no, we’ll mail them to you.’”
The doctor and his patient waited a week to receive the x-rays.
After that episode, Johnson vowed to open his own radiology clinic. He did, in 1938.
Fields encourages anyone who has a piece of black health care history to share with the collection to make an appointment with an archivist from the Black Archives. The exhibit is on display from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays at the Historic Lyric Theater in Overtown through June 29th.