GREENSBORO — On Thursday, a roomful of local physicians honored Dr. Alvin Blount, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that integrated hospitals nationwide in 1963.
There were surgeons and dentists, heart doctors and stomach doctors.
And black doctors, who treat black patients at Cone and Wesley Long hospitals — a practice so commonplace, it’s easy to forget that our community once forbid it.
Cone Health, which now owns both hospitals, still remembers.
And on Thursday, the system’s CEO apologized to Blount for it.
Cone Health CEO Terry Akin took the extraordinary step during a meeting of the system’s medical and dental staff, as about 250 health care professionals and community leaders looked on.
At 94, Blount is the sole survivor of the 11 plaintiffs in Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.
Their demand for equal access to modern health care facilities went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and did for hospitals what Brown v. Board of Education did for public schools.
Akin apologized to doctors and nurses banned from working in the hospitals, and to the thousands of black patients who were denied treatment there.
“Regardless of the norms of the times, this was not right,” he said.
The Cone Health Board of Trustees apologized, as well, through a resolution its members passed unanimously. The system announced that it will donate $250,000 to the Greensboro Medical Society for a scholarship honoring Blount and the other plaintiffs.
The society will give the money to students pursuing careers in health care.
Blount, who still treats patients, accepted the apology from a wheelchair.
Black and white doctors, he told the audience, will always be together.
“With our suit, we got rid of ‘separate but equal’ forever,” he told a crowd that included two former mayors and a retired chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Cone, like most hospitals in the Jim Crow South, required doctors to belong to the local medical society, which didn’t give full membership to black doctors.
Blount and the other doctors were among a generation of top-of-the-class medical school graduates who couldn’t treat patients in segregated hospitals, including Moses Cone and Wesley Long.
Blount was one of 11 plaintiffs who sued Cone in 1962 to change that.
They were led by George Simkins Jr., a Greensboro dentist and president of the local NAACP chapter. A student from N.C. A&T came to Simkins’ office, his tooth so abscessed he couldn’t open his mouth. Burning with fever, face swollen with infection, the student needed immediate treatment in a hospital.
But as usual, every bed at the blacks-only L. Richardson Hospital was full. Cone refused to admit Simkins’ patient.
Blount and the others lost their case in state court. But the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals held that “separate but equal” racial segregation in publicly funded hospitals was unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, thus letting the decision stand. Hospitals across the country were soon opened to black doctors and patients.
Scores of local doctors thanked Blount publicly and privately on Thursday — among them black doctors who said they owe their careers to Blount’s courage.
Dr. James Wyatt, a surgeon and president of the Cone Health Medical and Dental Staff, thanked Blount “for opening doors for me.”
Dr. Vincent Schooler, a gastroenterologist and president of the Greensboro Medical Society, praised Blount for his vision and determination.
Dr. Henry Smith, a cardiologist and past chairman of the trustee board, wiped tears from his face as he talked about Blount’s contributions.
In 1997, Smith became the first black president of Cone Health’s medical and dental staff, a position he said he could not have reached if not for his mentor and friend.
“Thank you,” Smith said to Blount. “We love you.”