A salute to a quartet of unsung Black medical professionals who labored in rural Mississippi

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Rosedale, Mississippi

Prior to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, there were very limited healthcare services and facilities in most Southern communities, especially for Black patients.  Even worse, there were almost no Black healthcare professionals.  For example, in Rosedale, which was the first county seat of Bolivar County and had a Black population that was more than 70%, between the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s, there were no Black doctors and only four Black women who were considered healthcare professionals.

Considering that this is Black History Month and recalling those conditions and those days, the writer felt almost compelled to salute those four Black women medical professionals.  These women were more than pioneers; they were real heroines.  For all of these years, they have gone unsung.  (If they are not lifted up now, the only people who knew of their work will soon be gone, and they could be lost to history forever.)

The first of these women is Mrs. Odessa Matthews.  Mrs. Matthews owned a fairly large amount of land in the south end of Rosedale, which had been handed down to her from the period of Reconstruction.  On her spacious homestead plot, which contained a house with five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a living room, a family room, a dining room, and a kitchen, she raised flocks of geese, chickens, and ducks.  Her husband, Mr. Sylvester Matthews, was also well-situated in a home about a mile to the north.

This bit of information is provided in order to reveal that she had no economic reason to work as a healthcare professional.  For her, it was a matter of dedication.  Thus, after Dr. E.R. Nobles opened the E.R. Nobles Hospital and Clinic, she went to work there, not as just a nurse but as the supervising nurse for the night shift.  Mrs. Matthews worked there for more than 40 years, from sundown until the next morning.  For her hours of dedication, she was paid barely more than laborers in the cotton fields.  That also reflected her dedication to serving her people.  She retired after Dr. Nobles died, by that time she was well-advanced in age.

On her job, she was not just occupying a space.  In the tradition of African women nurses, she did whatever was necessary to relieve and care for the Black patients at the hospital.  Administering shots, dispensing medicine, tending to personal hygiene, and supervising exercises were all things that she did, in addition to supervising the other workers.  Her nights were even more taxing because she would also child-sit her grandson, Glen Xavier Jackson.  Glen had to sleep at the hospital because she was his caregiver.  For more than 40 years, Dr. Nobles totally relied on her to run the hospital each night.  Even more importantly, the patients relied on her, and citizens in general held her in the highest regard.

By the time that Dr. Nobles died in 1955, the second of these heroic health professionals was hired to work at the E.R. Nobles Hospital and Clinic.  That individual was Ms. Cleora Thomas of Beulah, Mississippi.  In a manner similar to Mrs. Matthews, Ms. Thomas made great sacrifices by driving from Beulah each morning to work.  In addition to that, she was also transporting her oldest child, Kenneth L. Thomas, to school in Rosedale.  Shortly thereafter, she secured a home in Rosedale and enrolled her other children in school in Rosedale.

The new doctor hired to run the hospital was Dr. Wallace Moore.  Ms. Thomas quickly demonstrated great competence as a nurse.  Even more than had been the case of Dr. Nobles, Dr. Moore gave Ms. Thomas great authority and latitude in caring for the patients.  Similar to Mrs. Matthews, she was a supervisor.  In her case, it may have been even more impressive because she worked the day shift when things were the busiest.   In addition to shots and medication, Ms. Thomas occasionally performed relatively routine procedures at the doctor’s insistence.

The hospital continued to thrive in the 1950s and 60s.  It drew patients from the entire western side of Bolivar County and even from Coahoma County.  With this success, many more patients became acquainted with Ms. Thomas, who by that time married a fairly prosperous retiree, Mr. Frank Harris.  This large number of patients were impressed by her skills as a medical professional and were often drawn-in by her most pleasant personality as well.

Once the hospital closed in the early 1970s, she took a job in the field of education.  Many, however, continued to remember and cherish her in their minds as a nurse.

A third Black medical professional that people in the town came to know was Mrs. N.B. Tobe.  Mrs. Tobe served as a nurse in the Bolivar County Health Department, working the west side of Bolivar County.  She lived in Rosedale with her husband, Mr. Brooks Tobe, who worked for the city of Rosedale.

Many adults and children in and around Rosedale knew her as the “shot lady.”  It was her responsibility to administer vaccinations to the Black citizens of the area.  These vaccinations included those for measles, mumps, chicken pox, polio, and other communicable diseases.  In order to get the job done, she would visit each public school several times a year.  On those occasions, there would be hysterical excitement.  Many children were terrified of the shots, requiring teachers to assist by holding the children while Mrs. Tobe administered the shots.  Adults were given their shots at the health department.

She was particularly appreciated after the influenza and polio outbreaks in the 1950s.  She was apparently very competent since the county totally relied upon and retained her on the job year after year.  Her occupation of that position provided another opportunity for Black people in those days to see and interact with a Black medical professional.

The fourth unsung Black female medical professional who worked in Rosedale prior to the mid-1960s was Mrs. Lizzie Fox.  Mrs. Fox was an independent medical professional, serving as a midwife.

Mrs. Fox lived with her husband, Rev. Robert Fox, in Rosedale and had a number of children of her own.  She worked as a midwife from the 1930s through the 1960s.  During that time, almost all Black babies were delivered in the bedrooms of their mothers by Black midwives.  In the case of Rosedale and west Bolivar County, performing that service was the job of Mrs. Lizzie Fox.  This means that she was what they called “Granny” for several thousand Black children.

As the attending medical professional during pregnancy and childbirth, Mrs. Fox gave the pregnant mothers advice on nutrition and exercises prior to the birth; assisted the deliveries, in cases of breech births and Caesarean sections; cut and tied the umbilical cords; monitored the baby and mother until they were out of danger; and filed for the babies’ birth certificates.  Mrs. Fox was such a knowledgeable and competent professional until rarely was a baby or mother lost and rarely an error made regarding the birth certificates.

It may be interesting to note that her oldest daughter, Mattie, chose to become a medical professional as well.  She became a nurse and earned a doctorate degree in nursing.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it took so long for Black healthcare professionals to emerge in a town that was a county seat and for so long overwhelmingly Black.  It is also unfortunate that these professional women have been unsung for so long. They deserve to be recognized as dedicated pioneers and as fitting representatives of those Black medical professionals who came after them.  Therefore, today we salute them and the multitude that has followed in their footsteps.    

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A salute to a quartet of unsung Black medical professionals who labored in rural Mississippi

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 28, 2022