An Early African-American Doctor in Birmingham
By A.J. Wright
By 1910 over 3000 African-American physicians were practicing in the United States. By 1905 more than 60 had set up practice in Alabama, including several in the Birmingham area, and their numbers continued to increase as the decades passed. One of these doctors who had many years of practice in the city was Arthur M. Brown.
Brown was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in November 1867. His father was a prominent barber of the town, and the family valued education. After public school attendance, Brown went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on a competitive scholarship. Lincoln was the nation’s first historically black university, and in its first 100 years 20 percent of black physicians in the United States were Lincoln graduates. Finishing his degree there in 1888, he fulfilled his boyhood dream of becoming a doctor and graduated from the medical school at the University of Michigan in 1891.
That fall, after a rest in Cleveland where his parents had relocated, Brown came to Birmingham and sat for the grueling medical exam administered by the Jefferson County Medical Board. At that time the Alabama medical certification exam, established in 1877, had a national reputation as a very difficult one.
Brown accepted the challenge and made the highest score recorded to that date. He set up practice in Bessemer and joined several other African-American physicians in the state. These included Burgess Scruggs in Huntsville, Cornelius Dorsette in Montgomery and Halle Tanner Dillon at Tuskegee Institute. Dillon was the first woman to pass the Alabama medical exam.
In 1893 the national economic collapse drove Brown back to Cleveland, but he returned to Alabama and settled in Birmingham the following year. Except for a year in Chicago, Brown remained in the city until his death in December 1939. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.
During those years Brown and his second wife Nellie both became prominent members of the city’s African-American community. In the 1920 Birmingham Yellow Pages his office is listed at 310 North 18th Street; his phone number was Main 503.
Among his many achievements, he helped start the Children’s Home Hospital, for many years the only local facility where black doctors could practice. He also helped form the People’s Drug Company and served as its president. Along with fellow physician Ulysses G. Mason and others, Brown worked tirelessly to achieve a replacement for the derelict Thomas School which had been condemned by the health inspector yet remained in use.
Brown and his wife hired prominent black architect Wallace A. Rayfield to design their Craftsman cottage style home built 319 Fourth Terrace North in the Smithfield neighborhood. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and became the A.M. Brown Community House.
Brown did leave Alabama briefly in 1898. As soon as the U.S. declared war on Spain that spring, he organized a volunteer unit but it was never called to duty. After he contacted the U. S. Surgeon General directly, Brown was offered a contract as a surgeon and in early August arrived in Cuba as part of the U.S. 10th Cavalry, a black unit.
After improving conditions among troops and reducing disease, he was ordered to Fort McIntosh in Texas in January 1899. In a bizarre shooting incident, he was wounded by a white hospital steward and after recovery was discharged in April. Brown and others described the experience of the unit in Cuba in a book published in 1899, Under Fire with the 10th U.S. Cavalry.