Lessons from one who was there

There are certain people who make you feel good, maybe even inspired, just by being in their presence. Sonnie Hereford III, M.D., is one of those people. The family physician and civil rights leader, who practiced both arts during the segregated and tumultuous 1950s and early '60s in Alabama, gave off good vibes, both despite and because of his experiences, during  in a talk at Mayo Clinic on Monday night, Feb. 10. The good doctor was in town to share his story with Rochester staff as a guest of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the African Descendants Mayo Employee Resource Group.

Hereford760Dr. Hereford's story, according to Morie Gertz, M.D., who introduced his distinguished guest, "transcends integration, transcends civil rights … It's about doing the right thing."

The night was mostly about reflecting on where we've been as a society, and what it was like to practice medicine, raise a family, and create change back in the day in Dr. Hereford's hometown of Huntsville, Ala. Dr. Hereford was a leader in the local civil rights movement, and his son, Sonnie Hereford IV, was the first black student to integrate an all-white school in Alabama -- the Fifth Avenue School. As you can imagine, it wasn't easy.

When he got into medicine, Dr. Hereford said the medical care for black residents of his county was much like everything else -- there were separate and not at all equal facilities for blacks and whites. The local hospital had a separate wing for "colored" people, he said. It had 13 beds, and when those rooms were filled, black patients were relegated to the hallways, even when there were rooms available elsewhere in the hospital. A single room functioned as emergency room, operating room, and recovery room.

After medical school, Dr. Hereford set up practice in Huntsville. And he talked with the hospital's chief of staff about getting admitting privileges. "He said, 'Dr. Hereford, you cannot be a full-fledged member of the medical staff. To become a member, you have to be a member of the county medical society, and to be a member of the county medical society, you have to be white,'" he recalled. Dr. Hereford was then informed about a meeting at the hospital the next morning. "Come at 7:00, the white doctors are going to eat at 6:30," he was told. "And turn your cup over so the waitress doesn't inadvertently pour you a cup of coffee."

Thankfully, none of this stopped him, and Dr. Hereford found ways to care for his patients and make inroads into both the medical and the broader community. For example, when he learned he couldn't get continuing medical education in his home state (because it was only offered at hotels that wouldn't let him through their doors) he learned that he could go elsewhere to take courses and write it off as a business expense. "So the first post-graduate medical course I took was in Paris," he said with a grin.

In his travels, he began to see what progress looked like, and that only encouraged him to push harder for civil rights. "I got into the civil rights movement because I had been treated so badly," Dr. Hereford said, with more bewilderment than bitterness in his voice.

There are too many good stories to convey here. But we'll try to sum up with two statements that Dr. Hereford seemed to take great pride in. "We integrated the lunch counters, the restaurants, the hotels, the merchants (and more) two years before President Johnson signed his civil rights legislation on July 2, 1964." And second, "To all of the young people. I'm getting up in age. I've been fighting a long time. This is a relay race. I have a baton … Get out there and fight for equality anytime you can."

The entire talk will be archived on Mayo's intranet. You can find a brief interview with Dr. Hereford  below. Check it out, and then share your comments.