Honoring Dr. Helen Barnes, Mississippi’s first Black OB/GYN

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Dr. Helen Barnes

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s saw Blacks and like-minded individuals banding together to fight for equality, equity, and justice in terms of education, voting, and the inalienable rights that the Constitution laid out. In addition,  many  social reforms were made during that time. One of those reforms sought to increase quality healthcare in Black community and rural areas. They became known  as Community Health Centers. 

CHCs began as the brainchild of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. This committee was made up of doctors and medical professionals who tended to the medical needs of civil rights activists and protestors specifically during 1964’s “Freedom Summer” in  Mississippi.  

Elliott Hurwitt, who was the chief of surgery at Montefiore Hospital in Bronx, NY; H. Jack Geiger, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health; and John L.S. “Mike” Holloman, a Black physician from Harlem, were some of the first members of this group. They and about 100 others traveled to Mississippi that summer thanks to Dr. Robert Smith, a leading Black physician in Mississippi, then and now. 

After that summer, MCHR opened up a field office in Jackson, which was led by a Black psychiatrist named Alvin Poussaint. MCHR opened a free clinic in Mileston, MS that was funded by a wealthy benefactor. And in 1964, Dr. Geiger convinced Tufts University in Boston to fund two community health centers – one in Boston and one in Mound Bayou, MS. 

Dr. Helen Barnes, who was the first African American board-certified OB/GYN to practice in Mississippi, was asked by Dr. Geiger to became a vital part of the Tufts-Delta Health Center, a federally-funded comprehensive health center for the poor. 

Barnes was born on December 9, 1928 in Jackson, Mississippi. Her mother made sure that her and her siblings attended Catholic school because she felt that they would receive a better and broader education there. Eventually, the family would move to New York in 1938.

Barnes attended Holy Providence Boarding School in Cornwell Heights, PA (elementary school); St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School in New York City (high school); and New York City’s Hunter College. There, she studied chemistry and biology to prepare for medical school. 

When applying for medical schools, Barnes turned to her home state of Mississippi. However, because of the color of her skin, she was prohibited from attending medical school in Mississippi. Nonetheless, the state paid for her to attend Howard University’s College of Medicine in 1954 through a loan. Upon graduation, she started and completed her internship at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York.

Yet, she returned to her Mississippi roots in 1959 when she became employed at Greenwood Leflore Hospital in Greenwood, MS. There  she paid back a portion of her loan she received from the state by attending to the underserved community there. Nonetheless, after the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963, Barnes left Mississippi and went back to New York. There she received her training as an OB/GYN resident at King’s County Hospital.

After working at the community health center, Dr. Barnes became the first Black faculty member at the University of Mississippi Medical Center as an assistant professor of medicine in 1969. She was a vital component in creating UMMC’s primary care clinic at the Jackson Medical Mall and later became director of the clinic.

When she retired from that position in 1983, she still continued to see patients. Then, she adopted Boyd Elementary School, creating an endowed scholarship for students who wanted to pursue medicine. 

Dr. Helen Barnes is a Mississippi trailblazer who is still living in the Jackson area. 

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson has stepped into the role of publisher of her family legacy, the Jackson Advocate. Since March 2020, she has led the publication to once again become an award-winning newspaper with a new logo and website to boot. She is a Jackson native, graduating from Murrah High School and Tougaloo College. She is also classically trained in vocal performance, and, though she’s never broken a glass, she’s known to still hit a high note or two.

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Honoring Dr. Helen Barnes, Mississippi’s first Black OB/GYN

By DeAnna Tisdale Johnson
April 5, 2022