A Diagnosis of Bias: The Impact of White Supremacy on the Healthcare of James Brazier

| By Erika Burgess |

Dr. Charles McCuin Ward arrived in the small town of Dawson, Georgia, in 1955 as a young, single man, only three years out of the Medical College of Georgia. A native of Calhoun County, Georgia, Dr. Ward left his position as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy to open a private family practice with Dr. Walter Martin in Dawson.[1]Despite being a newcomer in the county, Dr. Ward quickly assumed respectable positions within the hospital and community.[2] In 1958, three years after Ward’s arrival in Dawson, the doctor involved himself in a more disturbing and racially biased side of the local culture when he was called to attend to James Brazier, a young black man who had been beaten by Dawson police.

Employed by the Terrell County Hospital to examine prisoners in the Terrell County Jail whenever necessary, Ward received a call from Officer Weyman B. Cherry on the evening of April 20, 1958, summoning him to the jail to examine the inmate Brazier, who Cherry and McDonald had beaten over the head earlier that day while arresting him.[3] Ward failed to diagnose Brazier’s cranial injuries during this initial examination, instead attributing Brazier’s symptoms to alcohol intoxication.[4] Ward never asked about the exact circumstances surrounding Brazier’s injuries, later stating, “I never ask such questions. I had rather not know.”[5] Later that night when he returned to the jail, Dr. Ward again declared that there was “nothing unusual” about Brazier’s state, even after the Dawson police had taken Brazier from his cell in the middle of the night and beaten him a second time.[6] The doctor acknowledged the severity of Brazier’s injuries only when Brazier was brought to the Terrell County Hospital in a comatose state on the morning of April 21. X-rays revealed a possible skull fracture, but Ward never confirmed this with an additional physical examination of Brazier’s skull. Instead, Ward referred Brazier to Columbus City Hospital for cranial surgery. But by this time, it was too late. Brazier died after undergoing a craniectomy[7] on April 25, four days later. [8]

Ward’s misdiagnoses and delayed medical care for James Brazier echoed the racial biases and feelings of white supremacy prevalent in the town, including within the Dawson Police Department, in 1958. The same negative sentiments against black citizens that led white Dawson police officers to assault James Brazier also greatly influenced the medical treatment of the resulting bodily injuries. Dr. Ward’s seeming disregard for Brazier’s needs was also typical of the white medical establishment’s attitude towards black patients and black health during the Jim Crow era in the American South. From large-scale medical institutions to small town family practitioners, healthcare was replete with racial misconceptions and prejudice. This bias affected all aspects of black healthcare, from the practice of medicine by black professionals to the morbidity and mortality within the black community.[9]

Medical misconceptions about blacks may have played a role in Ward’s failure to provide swift treatment for James Brazier. Medical professionals and patients alike were influenced by longstanding myths that blacks grossly differed from whites in physical and mental characteristics and susceptibility to disease. “The physician’s private sphere [of beliefs about racial differences] takes the form of an oral tradition that conveys racial folkloric beliefs from one generation to the next,”[10] historian John Hoberman has written. Dr. Ward would have been exposed to such medical myths surrounding black patients when coming into contact with white citizens and physicians of Dawson, where a majority of the population was black[11] and sentiments of white supremacy ran strong.[12] One diagnosis that was applied differently to whites and blacks was alcoholism. Psychosis from alcohol consumption was reported at much higher rates nationally among blacks than whites in the mid-twentieth century. It is unclear, however, whether these reports reflect repeated misdiagnoses of alcoholism, as was the case with Ward’s initial diagnosis of James Brazier, or whether alcoholism was truly higher among blacks than among whites, possibly due to poverty, stress, and the constant threat of discrimination faced by blacks.[13] Dr. Ward’s partner in practice, Dr. Walter Martin, colorfully rendered his own interpretation of Brazier’s symptoms when the twice-beaten Brazier was brought, unconscious, to the Terrell County Hospital on the morning of April 21, after being in police custody for more than 12 hours. Sitting on the hospital steps and looking into the Brazier’s car, where James Brazier was laying across the back seat, Martin remarked to Brazier’s wife, Hattie Bell Brazier, “Ain’t nothing ailing him, nigger… There ain’t nothing ail the damn nigger but drunk.”[14]

The Braziers likely had no other option than to obtain treatment from Dawson’s white physicians, such as the unconcerned and even hostile Drs. Ward and Martin. Black doctors were uncommon nationally, even more rare in Georgia, and virtually non-existent in rural parts of the state. The 1960 U.S. Census that captured the demographics of 1958 showed there were only 83 black physicians in Georgia in 1960, compared to 3,337 white physicians, or about 2.7 percent.[15] Most black physicians worked in large cities where more job opportunities existed for black professionals; they were very likely absent in the small, rural southern town of Dawson. Becoming a black doctor in the age of Jim Crow was not easy. Medical colleges in the South often banned black students. Even when a potential black physician did obtain graduate training, finding residencies and medical careers following graduation posed additional challenges. Most medical facilities in the South employed white physicians to attend to both white and black patients, but “colored wings” were often separated from, and in poorer condition than, those of whites. White physicians sometimes refused to treat black patients altogether. Both blacks and whites doubted the abilities of established black doctors, who most often treated impoverished patients who could not afford treatment at prestigious white facilities.[16] [17]

It is unclear why Dr. Ward misdiagnosed and delayed treatment for Brazier’s skull fracture. It is possible that Ward, influenced by racially biased white citizens of Dawson and even his business partner, held his own racist ideas about black patients and did not wish to treat them adequately. Ward was a prominent figure in Dawson, even only after three years of residence, and had connections to the police department through the examination of prisoners. He even knew Sheriff Z.T. Mathews of Terrell County, who ran the county jail from which Brazier was taken and beaten, as “Old Buddy.”[18] Thus, it is possible that Ward feared a loss of city connections, loss of his job, or even retribution by the police officers who beat Brazier if he had correctly diagnosed Brazier’s severe skull fracture. An anonymous letter about police violence against blacks in Dawson to Charles Diggs, a black congressman from Detroit, suggested that Ward was covering up for police during his misdiagnosis. The letter, dated about a month after Brazier’s death, claimed Ward had stated that he was tired of lying for police and would gladly testify against them if called to do so.[19] Though the truth of this letter is uncertain, it strongly suggests that Ward had become caught up in the white supremacist politics of Dawson, resulting in inadequate medical care for Brazier, which ultimately led to his death. Ward’s disregard of James Brazier’s critical condition was emblematic of the racist ideas within Dawson and throughout the institution of medicine during the era of segregation. Such medical neglect was just as deadly to the black community as beatings by white police.

Edited by Kate Tuttle and Hank Klibanoff

[1] “Obituaries: Dr. Ward,” The Dawson News, December 30, 1999.
[2] Ward became Chief of Staff at the Terrell County ­­Hospital by 1958 and later served on the Dawson City Council.
[3] Testimony of Dr. Charles M. Ward, Hattie Brazier v. W. B. Cherry, Randolph McDonald, Zachary T. Matthews [sic], et al., C.A. 475, M.D. Ga., February 8, 1963, The National Archives at Atlanta, 902-937.
[4] Ward noted Brazier’s slurred, incoherent speech, unsteady gait, and spots of blood in Brazier’s ear, all possible indications of a skull fracture, but later would state in the civil suit of Brazier’s wife, Hattie Bell Brazier, against Dawson police, “I didn’t think too much about it because…the odor of alcohol was pretty strong.”
Deposition of Charles Ward, Hattie Brazier v. W. B. Cherry, Randolph McDonald, Zachary T. Matthews [sic], et al., C.A. 475, M.D. Ga., The National Archives at Atlanta, November 24, 1962, 8.
[5] Deposition of Charles Ward, 30.
[6] Two other inmates in the jail, Mary Carolyn Clyde and Ira Gladden, witnessed Brazier being returned unconscious to his cell after this second late-night beating. They stated that they called to Brazier, but he did not respond. Clyde also recalled seeing large amounts of blood on Brazier’s bed and on Brazier himself when he was brought out of the cell in the morning. Ward, on the other hand, stated that he was able to rouse Brazier to sit up on the bed by calling his name, that he saw no change in Brazier’s external appearance from his first to his second visit, and that Brazier still smelled strongly of alcohol.
Deposition of Charles Ward, 9-10, 22-24.
[7] A craniectomy (also called a craniotomy) is the surgical removal of part of the skull, used to reduce pressure on the brain or to drain blood and fluid after cranial injury. “Craniectomy,” Merriam-Webster Online, accessed May 5, 2014. http://merriam-webster.com/medical/craniectomy.
[8] Although Ward finally had given Brazier a referral for surgery, Ward displayed a similar lack of urgency for Brazier’s treatment, just as he had in the jail. Before examining Brazier, Ward spoke to his partner, Dr. Walter Martin, in a private room for an extended period of time, further delaying treatment to the point where Hattie Bell Brazier was about take her husband to a doctor elsewhere. After looking over Brazier’s x-rays, Ward told Hattie Brazier, “Ain’t nothing I can do for him, widow,” implying that James Brazier was already as good as dead.
Deposition of Hattie Bell Brazier, Brazier v. Cherry, 26-27.
[9] Death rates of blacks for all age levels below age fifty were significantly higher than death rates of whites.
Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), 162.
[10] John Hoberman, Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 11.
[11] Census of the Population, 1950, 38.
[12] Though many medical myths surrounding black patients were simply oral tradition, others were backed by biased “scientific” studies. Such studies always emphasized the differences, never similarities, between whites and blacks, used unrepresentative samples of both races, and were all conducted by white researchers.
Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 141.
[13] Ibid, 980-981.
[14] Testimony of Hattie Bell Brazier, Brazier v. Cherry, 456-457.
[15] Census of the Population, 1960, 528.
The Census report for Georgia shows 3,045 physicians, of whom 83 were Negro and another 45 reported as “Other non-white.” That represents a decline in the number of black physicians from 1950 when the Census Report showed 128 in Georgia.
[16] Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 322-325.
[17] Black physicians did sometimes attend to white patients, who were often impoverished or immigrants. Southern whites also chose to see black doctors when their conditions could be considered socially shameful, namely when seeking treatment for sexually transmitted diseases or abortions.
Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 322-325.
[18] Deposition of Charles Ward, 17.
[19] Letter from Anonymous to Charles Diggs, dated May 26, 1958, located in the Donald Hollowell Papers, Auburn Avenue Research Library.