Remembering Dr. James L Johnson: He Worked to End the Racially Segregated Healthcare System

Dr. James L. Johnson’s service to the citizens of Cecil County is not well documented so I’ve added this post as a first attempt at publishing information about the respected healthcare professional.  Please share your memories about the Doctor and I’ll work to gather more information about his service to the profession and the community.

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When Dr. James L. Johnson started practicing medicine in Elkton in the middle of the Great Depression the county’s healthcare system was segregated, just like every other aspect of life in Cecil.  Union Hospital had separate wards for African-Americans and the young physician didn’t have admitting privileges. If one of his patients required hospitalization, he arranged for admission through another doctor in the area. As integration made inroads in areas such as public accommodation and education, an entire generation of black doctors worked with others to bring an end to racially segregated health care across the nation. The system of separate wards here appears to be have been eliminated in the mid-1960s and prior to that time the doctor had been given admitting privileges at the hospital

The young-man from Baltimore, a 1928 graduate of Lincoln University, went to Nasvhille, TN to complete his medical training at Meharry Medical College, a school the Freedman’s Bureau established in 1876 as a college for African-American physicians.  After returning to Baltimore to complete his internship at Provident Hospital, he opened his office on East High Street in Elkton in 1934.

For his many contributions to the community, the respected doctor was recognized as the citizen of the year by the Chamber of Commerce in 1971. He was particularly proud of his effort to get a modern school built at Booth Street for children in the African-American community during the separate but unequal period of the county’s past.  Into the 1970s he maintained a busy medical practice, keeping his office open five days a while visiting patients at Union hospital seven days a week. His days often began before dawn and ended well after sunset. Jim Cheeseman, the Cecil Whig photographer said in 1971: “The one picture I’d really like to shoot is a silhouette of the good doctor rushing to Union Hospital in the early morning before dawn, like I’ve seen him do so many times.”

Dr. Johnson passed away on Feb 24, 1978, at the age of 73. He practiced medicine in Elkton for 43 years.

johnson 549

Dr. James L. Johnson

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15 responses to “Remembering Dr. James L Johnson: He Worked to End the Racially Segregated Healthcare System

  1. He was good physician and my father respected him enough to leave him in charge of his patients when we went on vacation even before the civil rights movement and before Dr. Johnson had rights to put patients into Union Hospital. It was a fight to ge…t that right and I am proud that my father helped in it

  2. Beth Boulden Moore

    My father, Bob Boulden, wouldn’t go to any doctor but Dr. James Johnson. While the rest of my family saw Dr. Tillman Johnson, Dad always went to Dr. James Johnson when he felt sick. Dad had a lot of respect for him.

  3. Beth:

    Thanks for sharing your memories of Dr. Johnson. Olga Strvakais frequently mentions how her father would only go off call to Dr. James Johnson

  4. Dr. James Johnson was already a well respected member of the medical staff at Union when I joined the staff in 1973. I’d see patients in the ER who were his patients and they’d be proud to tell me that their family doc was “The black Dr. Johsnson.” I didn’t keep track in writing, but I had the impression that among the patients I treated in the ER who were his patients, around half of them were white, and the other half were African American. He didn’t discriminate in who he’d treat. If a person was sick, Dr. J was there for them.

    Unfortunately, the county medical society didn’t keep records of attendance at meetings. It’s possible that MedChi, the state medical society might be able to come up with some records of when Dr. J joined.

    I remember Dr. Stavrakis commenting to me at the time of Dr. J’s death that his death was a great loss for the community.

  5. Dr. Farkas: Thanks. I’ll follow up on that. Does the county medical society keep any kind of minutes? Would I be able, for example, to determine when he was able to join that professional group? I also think I might try Drs Gray & Seiter and see what they recall.

  6. It’s truly unfortunate that the Cecil County Medical Society hasn’t kept any minutes during the 20th century because now there’s no written records to document the history of medicine in Cecil County. The only records I’m aware of are the minutes already in the posession of the Cecil County Historical Society.

  7. Thanks Dr. Farkas. I’ll keep both you and Olga informed. I interviewed one of his pallbearers the other day.

  8. Olga:

    The other day I talked to Dr. Folk about this. He joined the medical staff at Union Hospital in 1966, after working for the Veterans Administration system. It was integrated at that point, he recalls. Coming from the federal system, he would have surely remembered finding an segreated healthcare delivery system, he thought. The nurses I talk to remember that the system was segregated in the early ’60s when they first started working there, so I think we’re getting a best estimate for a date.

    I’ve also been invited to do a talk for the 100th anniverary of the NAACP banquest in Oct so I’m going to tell people there that we’re working to collect this aspect of history. That should get us some very get interview data.

    thanks for your encouragement on this. We should be able to fill in this record rather completely and in an accurate sort of way.

  9. Patricia A. Maley

    Dear Mike-
    It was only this week as I was doing other research that I found your article on “Doc” Johnson. I am not kidding when I say that I owe this man my life – when I was a kid, none of the other doctors in the area could figure out why I had high raging fevers that came intermittently and I would be out of school for days or weeks. Dr. Johnson was the one who figured out it was a fistula and sent me to Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia to have it surgically removed. He made house calls out to the “boonies” when most doctors would not ever keep their office open beyond their regular house even for emergencies. My Mom and I sat many an hour in his waiting room because of her regard for his medical abilities (and her uncle was a surgeon who had trained at Jefferson, so she knew what a good healer should be like).

    48 years later I can say with great certainty that I have not met a doctor since who can match Dr. Johnson’s passion for medicine and his love of all people regardless of color or economic means. He truly had the soul of a healer. We are much poorer for his passing.
    Patricia A. Maley, AICP

    • Patricia, thanks for adding your memories about Dr. Johnson. If you recall more you’d like to share, we’d enjoy hearing the memories. I wonder if he has any family members around. I’d enjoy gathering more information about Dr. Johnson.

  10. Donna Williams

    I found myself on this website looking into old photos of Elkton when I came across the headline about one of the most beloved icons of my childhood . I have many wonderful memories of growing up here and one of my most cherished is of Dr. Johnson. He was such a gentle, kind man who had this wonderful calming presence about him. A calming manner that I certainly appreciated as I made my way through the waiting room into his office for a shot. It wasn’t until years later that my mother told me that I was born at home because my soon to be doctor wasn’t allowed into the hospital for my birth because of his color. So sad. Thanks for the beautiful photograph of Dr. Johnson. That is exactly how I remembered him; with that beautiful smile and that pipe! By the way that pipe was at times replaced with a cigar; a big stogie – I can see him just a clear as if it were yesterday smoking away right there in the office! Love those times!!
    – Donna Williams

  11. Donna, thank you so much for sharing your wonderful memories of Dr. Johnson. I wish we had more material on him.

  12. Milford Sprecher

    My mother told me that my father would look after Dr. Johnson’s patients when they were in the hospital. I really did not know him, nor was he our family doctor. I have been impressed with all of the positive comments about him. Great stories. He came to Elkton in 1934, the same year my father arrived. It would be interesting to know why both came to a small town like Elkton back then.

  13. Dr Johnson was the best of best , I went to him at as baby till I moved in 1965 , he was kind and gentle and
    Took the time to talk to you , loved that Doctor .

  14. If it weren’t for Dr. Johnson, my mother would have most likely died after my birth. This one man stayed with my mom for 24 hours straight until she was out of harms way. He had delivered my mom and many of my family members. When we went in for a visit, the waiting room was always packed, some of the poorest in the community would bring foods from gardens or chickens from their farms in return for treatment and it was gladly accepted. His nurse Alice and receptionist Darlene were always present. He always had a smile. My husband was a patient too. His mom was very poor. When the time came for Bob to go to college he told Dr. Johnson he was attending Lincoln University. Bob being one of very few white students in a mostly all black college, studied a lot. He had great grades, but after the first year he had no way of paying for a second year. Funny how out of nowhere he was informed he had a scholarship so long as he maintained his grades. I have always had a feeling Dr. Johnson had something to do with Bob getting his education to become a teacher, a job he loved. Dr. Johnson prepared all of his own meds, after starting them you really started feeling so much better. We always got hugs and kisses, a puff on his pipe, some gum or fruits from his trees, but with this man you felt loved and cared about, it wasn’t about money or having stuff or flaunting anything, it was about a caring man, a gentle man that wanted the best for the community. He was our family, friend, confidant. I tell people even today I had never seen the color of his skin as a barrier, we just loved this man so much for the wonderful man he was.

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