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 County. Union Hospital had a separate ward for African-Americans and the young physician didn’t have admitting privileges. If one of his patients required hospitalization, he arranged the admission through another doctor.
As integrations made inroads in areas such as public accommodation and education, an entire generation of black doctors worked with others to bring an end to the racially segregated health care across the nation. The system of separate wards here appears to have been eliminated in the early-1960s but prior to that time the physician had been given admitting privileges at the hospital.
The daughter of Dr. Peter Stavrakis, Olga, recalls that period: “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. Sometimes people would react to that and I would assure them that my father only went off call to the best practitioner in the county. He also got involved in helping to get full hospital privileges for the physician for he felt that he was a skilled healthcare provider.”
The young man from Baltimore, a 1928 graduate of Lincoln University, went to Nashville, TN to enroll in Meharry Medical College, a school that was that was founded in 1876 by the Freedman’s Bureau as a school for African-American physicians. It and Howard University in Washington, D.C., were the only medical schools for black students at that time.
After returning to Baltimore to complete his internship at Provident Hospital, the urban professional settled in rural Cecil County, opening his office at the corner of East High and Booth streets in Elkton in 1934. Barbara Boddy, 61, of Elkton worked for him in that bustling office as a teenager. “Doctor would make his rounds at Union Hospital first thing in the morning, then visit the sick in their homes in the afternoon.” You know Doctors made house calls in those days, she casually remarked.
But his day was far from over “We would open the office for patients later in the day,” Barbara adds. “Often we worked late into the night as Doc took care of everyone. When he was ready for his afternoon case load, “he would say okay open the door. Sometimes there would be so many people already there waiting for us.” Barbara, serving as his assistant, would attend to office functions and help the physician as he swabbed throats, took temperatures and blood pressures, cured various pains, and treated a range of ailments. You would also find him traversing the county at all hours of the night to respond to emergencies at patient’s homes she adds. “He was always working. He never seemed to tire.”
“Six dollars, yes that’s what it cost for a Doctor visit,” Clifford Jones recalls. “For that he dispensed whatever medicine you needed too. Doc always fixed me right up, curing whatever ailed me.” “He was a sweet wonderful person,” is the way Barbara remembers him. “He was always working for people and it didn’t matter whether they could pay or not. He just took care of them.”
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 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 would really like to shoot is a silhouette of the good doctor rushing to Union Hospital in the early morning before dawn, like I have seen him do so many times.”
Dr. Johnson passed away on Feb 24, 1978, at the age of 73. He had practiced medicine in Elkton for 43 years.