Under the Knife: How a Wealthy Negro Surgeon Wielded Power in the Jim Crow South

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9780743242578: Under the Knife: How a Wealthy Negro Surgeon Wielded Power in the Jim Crow South
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Hugh Pearson grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, encouraged by his parents to believe that nothing was beyond his reach. If he needed any further inspiration, he could look to his great-uncle, Dr. Joseph Griffin. Although Griffin had stayed in the Deep South, he managed to become a pillar of his community at a time when Afro-Americans -- then called Negroes -- rarely prospered. He became the first Negro surgeon in south Georgia, donating millions of dollars to Afro-American institutions and building the largest private hospital for Afro-Americans in the State. Griffin inspired Louis Sullivan, who later became President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services, to go into medicine and a young Hosea Williams, who grew up to be one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most trusted aides, to aspire to be someone important. He served as a father figure to Donald Hollowell, the lawyer who became a mentor to Vernon Jordan and earned the nickname Georgia's "Mr. Civil Rights" for his legal battles on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other activists. In "Under the Knife," Pearson embarks on a personal journey to learn more about his great-uncle and the rest of the men in his family. What he has uncovered are cold truths about the moral complexities of success and power in a racist society. His uncle's fortune was largely built on performing backdoor abortions for women of all colors, on treating sexually transmitted diseases in Caucasian men too embarrassed to seek help from their regular doctors, and on coercing donations of property from many patients when they couldn't afford to pay their medical bills. Pearson concludes that the same drive and willingness to bend the rules thathelped men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan become wealthy and powerful in less enlightened eras were just as necessary in an ambitious Afro-American man like his great-uncle, who faced a far more difficult path. Pearson discusses his great-uncle's relationships with southern Jews who befriended him and uncovers the buried history of Afro-American physicians in the Jim Crow era. He dramatizes the struggles of other successful men in his family, charting his forefathers' rise from slavery to ownership of large Georgia farms and flourishing businesses in Jacksonville, Florida, and the accomplishments of his own father, who became the first person of any color in his rural Georgia county to earn a medical degree. With "Under the Knife," Hugh Pearson brings to life the pains and triumphs, as well as the ambiguities and fortitude, involved in the rise of middle-class and wealthy Afro-Americans, and restores the true legacy of an overlooked and oversimplified part of the American experience.

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Review:

Just as he skillfully deconstructed the Black Panthers in his groundbreaking The Shadow of the Panther, Hugh Pearson presents in Under the Knife a familial tale of a different kind of black power that evades our most ingrained social clichés. Pearson's uncle, Dr. Joseph Griffin, lived in segregated Georgia and moved up the socioeconomic ladder by secretly performing abortions and treating the sexually transmitted diseases of the white folks in his community. When they couldn't pay up, the good doctor extorted property deals from them! He also hired down-and-out blacks as butlers and chauffeurs and was a pillar in the Negro community (in a Robin Hood fashion). Pearson blends fact with rural fiction as he shows how African Americans in the era before the civil rights movement were sometimes able to outsmart the bigoted whites who, in a cosmic twist of fate, depended on them when the chips were down. --Eugene Holley Jr.

From Publishers Weekly:

Offering a thumbnail history of black medicine in the South, this biography of an unusual anti-hero, who happens to be Pearson's great uncle, is as controversial in its own way as was Pearson's reassessment of the legacy of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers in The Shadow of the Panther. Unafraid to challenge the benevolent family myth upheld in part by another relative's earlier memoir of Dr. Joseph Griffin, Pearson reveals "Uncle Joe" to have been a difficult, ambitious man. In 1911, Griffin, then a young brick mason, scandalized his mother by quitting his job and enrolling in Meharry medical college. During WWI, he did a stateside stint in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before establishing a practice for blacks in Bainbridge, in Decatur County, Ga. In 1918, when a nationwide flu epidemic killed the only white doctor in town, black and white residents alike relied on Dr. Griffin's effective advice. Because his Model-T was deemed too "uppity" for his station, whites drove him to and from house calls. Pearson also reports rumors that Griffin encouraged some black patients to sign over deeds to their homes to finance their treatment. In the 1940s, the aging physician had an abortion practice that was so lucrative that black and white out-of-towners flocked to local hotels, according to Pearson, prompting Griffin to pay off the local sheriff to avoid scrutiny. Although marred by old-fashioned language (i.e., consistent use of "Caucasian" and "Negro"), an evident lack of sympathy for disenfranchised blacks and an emphasis on anecdotal history, this biography offers a fascinating character study. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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