The Long Road to Treatment

| By Sarah Tiffany |

As Isaiah Nixon stared down the barrel of Jim A. Johnson’s gun, his wife yelled, “Fall, Isaiah, fall!”[1] Before he could heed his wife’s advice, three bullets ripped through his stomach and legs. His six children, all younger than 11, watched as their father struggled to remain on his feet. “He was taking bullets like King Kong or Superman,” Dorothy Williams, Nixon’s daughter, would later recall.[2] The crimson stains on the ground hinted at the damage done: One bullet had pierced his liver, small intestines, stomach, and kidney.[3]

Isaiah Nixon was a strong man who made turpentine extraction look easy.[4] His work kept him in good shape. Family members remember him chipping timber and hauling buckets of sap, barely breaking a sweat.[5] The work was not without its perils; handling sharp-edged tools always carried the potential for harm. But hours earlier on that September day in 1948, Nixon had done something unusually dangerous: he, a black man in Montgomery County, Georgia, had cast his ballot in the state Democratic Party primary election. His mother had warned him that he could be beaten or killed.[6] Nixon voted anyway.

As he lay bleeding on the ground in front of his farmhouse, his wife rushed to his side. At just five feet tall, Sallie Nixon dragged her husband’s 160-pound body up the porch steps and into the house.[7] Two weeks earlier, she had given birth, and her body was still regaining its strength.[8] Laying him down in a side room, she faced the arduous task of keeping him alive.

The story of Isaiah Nixon’s brave stance against voting discrimination is a grim reminder of the violence that black men and women faced when they tried to exercise their civil rights in the Jim Crow South. The aftermath of the shooting, and the Nixon family’s struggle to keep him alive, reveals much about the state of health care at the time—and the myriad of obstacles faced by Southerners who happened to be poor, rural, and black.

In the 1940s, Southern hospitals routinely denied admittance to African American patients, sending them instead to black hospitals, where resources and quality of care were far inferior.[9] Some hospitals admitted both races but relegated black patients to makeshift wards in attics or basements.[10] Georgia was no stranger to these practices. Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta constructed a wall within the hospital in an effort to keep white patients from having to look at their black counterparts.[11] Problems of access were compounded for rural blacks, especially poor blacks, who lived far outside major cities. Despite the U.S. Congress’s passage of the Hill-Burton Act in 1946, which provided underserved areas with funds to build hospitals for people unable to pay, segregated healthcare facilities in the Jim Crow South continued well into the late 20th century.[12]

The reasons for this went beyond culture. Most whites believed black people were biologically different from themselves and therefore required different kinds of medical attention.[13] Many physicians in 19th-century America posited that black nerves were thicker and less sensitive than those of whites, giving blacks a higher threshold of pain.[14] Vestiges of these unfounded medical biases survived into the next century. Moreover, at the time of Isaiah Nixon’s death, fewer than 90 years had passed since the U.S. government counted each African American as only three-fifths of a person and constitutionally subhuman. White physicians in Southern states like Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, and Virginia often used poor African American patients’ bodies for dissections, experimentations, and classroom demonstrations for their white students.[15] In the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, doctors and a nurse followed a group of poor black sharecroppers, who tested positive for syphilis.[16] Without their subjects’ knowledge or consent, the doctors “treated” them with aspirin and iron tonic and discouraged blacks from seeking legitimate aid. This study, which ran from 1932 to 1972 in Macon, Alabama, highlighted physicians’ abuse and deception of blacks for experimental purposes. When revealed, the scandal further eroded the already tenuous trust between blacks and the white medical establishment.[17]

As Sallie Nixon watched her husband writhe in pain, she faced a mountain of problems. Where would she find a doctor way out in the woods? Montgomery County only had small doctors’ offices, which were equipped for first-aid care.[18] The nearest hospital that would take blacks was the Claxton Hospital in Dublin, almost 60 miles away.[19] The Nixons only owned a horse and wagon; where would Sallie Nixon find a car? She had no means of calling emergency transport, as there was no telephone on the Nixons’ property.[20]

She somehow managed to get word to her neighbor, A.C. Brown, that she needed a car.[21] At this point, all Sallie Nixon could do was wait. Years later, her daughter Dorothy Williams could still remember the sound of her father’s moaning all through the night. “It seemed like forever until they came and took him to the hospital,” she said.[22]

A.C. Brown finally arrived with the car that would take Sallie Nixon’s dying husband on the back roads of Montgomery County to the hospital. The difficulty of the trip could not have improved Isaiah Nixon’s condition. Today, gunshot victims travel to hospitals in ambulances equipped with life-extending fluids, gurneys, oxygen tanks, and other high-tech equipment. No such resources were on hand for Nixon’s trip. Every added minute of travel brought Isaiah Nixon closer to death. The birth of President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway system was still seven years away. Georgia road maps from 1948 indicate that many of the state highways around the Nixons’ home in Alston were still under construction.[23] The most likely route for Brown’s car was to travel north on state highway 56, then northwest on highway 29. Both roads were only partially paved in 1948.[24] Paved portions were easily driveable in all types of weather, but unfinished segments were glorified gravel roads, graded and unsmooth and far more precarious. The top speed limit was 40 mph; a ride from Alston to Claxton Hospital would have taken nearly fifty minutes under ideal conditions, but road construction created a lot of traffic, and bottlenecks were common.[25] All the while, Isaiah Nixon was bleeding and dying.

The car was headed to the Claxton Hospital in Dublin, Georgia, a town known to be more racially progressive than many others in the state, due largely to the relatively high education level of the local population.[26] Some black families in Dublin achieved a level of affluence that rivaled that of even the wealthiest white families in the region.[27] One black man named Herbert Dudley owned a motel and a restaurant that served as a common meeting place for African American mobilizers, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.[28]

Yet despite these signs of progress, Laurens County remained heavily segregated throughout the 1940s.[29] Restaurants like Dairy Queen had separate water fountains for “whites” and “coloreds.” Black people had to make way for white people when walking down the sidewalk, and black males had to address white males as “captain” during their interactions.[30] African Americans and whites had separate movie nights at the local cinemas. During live theatre shows, blacks were required to sit in the balcony, sectioned off by dividers.[31] Although churches were not segregated in seating, blacks never attended the same services as whites. If black people in Laurens County ever felt compelled to test these customs, they might answer to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which was known to be active in the area.[32] Ben Eubanks, the grandson of E.B. Claxton and a physician from Dublin, recalled driving with his father past a frequent KKK meeting spot outside the Dublin Montrose Hotel and seeing men with torches chanting in typical white robes and hoods.

Claxton Hospital admitted black people—and received a liberal reputation locally because of it—but was still racially segregated. Its bottom floor was reserved for white patients,[33] while black patients were quartered in a smaller ward upstairs that was only accessible through the back of the hospital.[34] Black people did not eat in the same area as whites, and the black dining room was largely unseen to the general public. Even though physicians performed all surgeries in a single operating room, and no patient was turned away from treatment on the basis of color,[35] medical treatment for whites and blacks was still not equal.[36] Though the details of Isaiah Nixon’s quality of care at the hospital are unclear, similar cases shed light on what might have happened.

Two years earlier, Maceo Snipes, a World War II veteran and the first African American to vote in Taylor County in Georgia, died because he did not receive proper medical treatment.[37] Four white men shot Snipes for voting. Wounded but ambulatory, Snipes walked with his mother almost three miles to ask their family friend, Homer Chapman, for help. Snipes arrived at the Montgomery Hospital in Butler and waited in a room that resembled a closet, as the doctor on duty attended to other patients. Nearly six hours later, the doctor returned and performed surgery to remove the bullets lodged in Snipes’s body. Midway through the operation, the doctor pointed out that Snipes would need a blood transfusion to survive, but there was no “black blood” at the hospital, according to Snipes’s family.[38] Throughout the South at this time, transfusion of blood donated by one racial group to a patient belonging to a different racial group was often prohibited, even if the blood transfusion could save a life.[39] Two days after the shooting, Snipes died from his injuries.

John Bell Jr., Isaiah Nixon’s assigned physician, had excellent medical credentials.[40] He had practiced for many years and was highly regarded in Dublin as a top doctor. Alongside Dr. Edward Burton Claxton, Dr. Bell travelled from county to county throughout Georgia, making house calls to both black and white patients.[41]

Dr. Bell was also active in political and educational arenas.[42] He was closely connected with the Talmadge family, most notably Herman Talmadge, the governor of Georgia who campaigned on a platform of white supremacy.[43] In fact, when Talmadge sustained an injury in a car accident on the way home from a campaign rally, he received treatment at the Claxton Hospital, just one week before Isaiah Nixon arrived.[44]

With a desire to remain politically active, Dr. Bell later served as Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver’s campaign manager for Laurens County.[45] Vandiver ran on the “No, not one” platform, which proclaimed that not one black student would be allowed to study in a white public school. Despite Vandiver’s segregationist stance during the campaign, he appointed Dr. Bell to the Georgia Board of Regents; Bell later worked to integrate the University of Georgia, helping the first black students to enroll.[46]

At Claxton Hospital, Isaiah Nixon underwent an exploratory laparotomy—an operation that opens and examines the abdomen—in an effort to save his life.[47] The bullet had nicked Isaiah Nixon’s small intestines and liver, and he desperately needed blood, fluids, and surgical treatment for his wounds. If Isaiah Nixon lost 40 percent of his blood volume, his body would go into hemorrhagic shock.[48]

Isaiah Nixon died two days later. His cause of death was officially documented as a gunshot wound to his abdomen.[49] It’s clear that the actions of Jim A. Johnson directly led to the death of his former childhood playmate.[50] However, questions remain on whether Nixon could have been saved, had societal conditions, including racial bias in quality of health care and better rural hospital access for black people, not intervened.

[1] Williams, Dorothy Nixon, telephone interview with the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases class at Emory University, October 28, 2015.

[2] Williams, Dorothy Nixon, face-to-face interview by Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases class, October 8, 2015.

[3] Isaiah Nixon death certificate, obtained by the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project from Laurens County Health Department.

[4] Williams, face-to-face interview, October 8, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Williams, telephone interview, October 28, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Litwack, Leon F. “White Folks: Acts.” In Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, 233. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010.

[10] Friedman, Emily. “U.S. Hospitals and the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” H&HN Daily, June 3, 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Long, Gretchen. “Medical Care and Public Health.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 24: Race, edited by Thomas C. Holt, Laurie B. Green, and Wilson Charles Reagan, 96. University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hoberman, John. “Medical Consequences of Racializing the Human Organism.” In Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism, 92. University of California Press, 2012.

[15] Savitt, Todd L. “The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South.” The Journal of Southern History 48 (1982): 331-48. doi:10.2307/2207450.

[16] Long, “Medical Care and Public Health,” 96.

[17] Hoberman, John. “Black Patients and White Doctors.” In Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism, 18. University of California Press, 2012.

[18] Scott Thompson, telephone interview with Sarah Tiffany, April 24, 2017.

[19] Williams, face-to-face interview, October 8, 2015. The Claxton Hospital was about 60 miles North from the Nixons’ home. William A. Folkes, “One Dead, Another Wounded From South Georgia Voting,” Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), September 12, 1948.

[20] Williams, face-to-face interview, October 8, 2015.

[21] Rudolph A. Alt, “Johnnie Johnson; Jim A. Johnson; Isaiah Nixon- Victim, April, 4, 1949, FBI files on Dover Carter and Isaiah Nixon, 2.

[22] Williams, face-to-face interview, October 8, 2015.

[23] “David Rumsey Map Collection,” Cartography Associates, 2017.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Sheppard, Bertha H. “Negroes in Laurens County.” In History of Laurens County Georgia 1807-1941, 261-266. John Laurens Chapter: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1941.

[27] DuBose Porter, telephone interview with Sarah Tiffany, April 21, 2017.

[28] Dahlia Allen, “Herbert ʻHubʼ Dudleyʼs downtown Dublin hotel and café, and its role in the Civil Rights Movement,” The Courier Herald, April 18, 2017.

[29] Dr. Ben A. Eubanks, MD, telephone interview with Sarah Tiffany, April 27, 2017.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Litwack, “White Folks: Acts,” 233. Balcony seating became known as “buzzard roost” or “nigger heaven.”

[32] Eubanks, telephone interview, April 27, 2017.

[33] Harriett Claxton, telephone interview with Sarah Tiffany, April 26, 2017.

[34] Eubanks, telephone interview, April 27, 2017.

[35] Ibid. The hospital did not turn any patients away on the sole basis of color. Edward Burton Claxton III, telephone interview with Sarah Tiffany, April 26, 2017.

[36] Thompson, telephone interview, April 24, 2017.

[37] Minor, Elliot, “Answers Sought in 1946 Ga. Killing,” The Washington Post, February 13, 2007.

[38] Linda Burrs and Luree Hereford, telephone interview with Erica Sterling, June 5, 2014.

[39] Guglielmo, Thomas, “‘Red Cross, Double Cross’: Race and America’s World War II- Era Blood Donor Service,” The Journal of American History 97, no.1 (2010): 65-66.

[40] Harriett Claxton, telephone interview, April 26, 2017.

[41] Eubanks, telephone interview, April 27, 2017.

[42] Harriett Claxton, telephone interview, April 26, 2017.

[43] Porter, telephone interview, April 21, 2017.

[44] “Talmadge Confined To Hospital Bed,” Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), July 27, 1948.

[45] Porter, telephone interview, April 21, 2017.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Isaiah Nixon death certificate.

[48] Dr. Wayne Ross, MD, telephone interview with Sarah Tiffany, April 19, 2017.

[49] Isaiah Nixon death certificate, obtained by the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project from Laurens County Health Department..

50 Williams, telephone interview, October 28, 2015.