Sun. Dec 4th, 2022

Black History in Memphis: Bluff City Medical Society’s new leaders are part of city’s history, future

By: Stephanie Scurlock

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Bluff City Medical Society formed as a support group for some of the first Black doctors who came to Memphis to work in the early 1900s. 

The organization, the professional medical association for doctors of color in Memphis, has grown and evolved over the years. Now, for the first time it’s being led by an all-female executive board. 

“It is a thrilling experience, not because the men in Bluff City Medical Society are less equipped, but there is just something about a group of motivated, driven Black females that can move the world,” said Dr. Michelle Kitson.

Dr. Latonya Washington, president of the group, said they’re determined to bring awareness to racism and bias among medical professionals who may treat patients of color differently, either knowingly or unknowingly. 

“That’s their intent — move the world, move Memphis forward by eliminating health disparities through their practice of medicine and by putting on health fairs, webinars and other educational activities,” said Washington. “The main thing that we’re concerned about in Bluff City is educating our community on health-related concerns. That’s one of our big pushes for the organization.”

Organizations like the Bluff City Medical Society were born out of medical racism, when the American Medical Association refused to allow Black physicians to join. 

The founders left behind a legacy of aiding in the careers of countless Black physicians and helping Blacks, the poor and underserved get the healthcare they deserve.

Bluff City was founded by Dr. Miles Vanderhurst Lynk in the early 1900s. One of the most noted leaders was Dr. Clara Brawner, the first Black woman to practice medicine in Memphis in the mid-’50s.

Dr. Ethylyn Williams Neal, a pediatrician, is the groups’ historian. She remembers the early days, when the society met at Brawner’s house in North Memphis.

“At that time, there was no other organization that we would even try to join,” Neal said. “I don’t know anyone who was invited to join the AMA. … We had these organizations in all the states.”

Bluff City Medical Society is part of the National Medical Association, the largest and oldest national organization representing African American doctors. Physicians in the organization support each other and mentor students coming into the medical field.

Washington was one of those mentees.

“Having mentors and other physicians in the community that looked like me was very encouraging,” she said. “You don’t always get that level of encouragement when you’re in school.”

The group hosts an annual gala to award scholarships to medical school students but says they’re concerned about the recent lack of Blacks being admitted.

“If we think about the school of medicine that is here in the city, I believe there are 180 students, there are less than 10 percent. There are seven Black students in a city like Memphis,” said Dr. Kitson Again.

Members said they are currently working with medical schools admissions boards to recruit more Black students.

The other pressing challenge for the group is helping eliminate vaccine hesitancy during the coronavirus pandemic.

“All of a sudden because we’ve got the Doctor Googles and the Doctor Facebooks of the world, people have really continued to distrust us,” Again said, “and that is one of the biggest challenges and tragedies of this pandemic.”

So, they continue to try and counter misinformation with good information. 

The Bluff City Medical Society is Black history, and its current members are writing a prescription for the next chapter in medicine.

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