Dr. Leslie Wilson, Associate Dean, recently wrote an OpEd for NJ.com titled, “Black History Month: He opened a hospital, helped to integrate others in New Jersey.” The OpEd highlights Dr. John Andrew Kenney’s efforts to integrate northern hospitals and to ensure the survival of the Black medical schools, Howard and Meharry.
As a student and now as an educator, I have been fascinated by the legacy of the Great Migration, the historic movement of African Americans from the South to the North.
This movement was triggered by economic opportunities, racial discrimination, racial intimidation, and fear. The migration continued for over two decades, slowly decreasing because of a series of race riots, such as the 1917 East St. Louis, the Red Summer of 1919, and 1921 Tulsa, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and ultimately the Great Depression.
Each migrant has a special story, and within that narrative is a message for us all. Dr. John Andrew Kenney is one of those migrants.
A noted civil rights activist of the pre-Brown v. Board of Education era, Kenney was a superb physician, member of the National Medical Association, founder of hospitals, and devoted family man.
Born in Albemarle County, Virginia on June 11, 1874, he graduated from Hampton Institute in 1897 and completed his medical training at Shaw University’s Leonard Medical School in 1901. Shortly afterward, Dr. Kenney went to work at Tuskegee Institute becoming the private physician to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.
At Tuskegee, he served as the medical director and chief surgeon of the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital and created its nursing program and clinic. Later, in his quest to hire Black physicians for the new Veterans Administration hospital, Kenney ran afoul of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1924, facing death threats, Kenney and his family fled Alabama and found their way north.
Finding shelter in Essex County, he raised his family in Montclair. Due to discrimination, he was unable to work in the local hospitals. Dr. Kenney used his resources to establish a hospital for African Americans in Newark. Opening in 1927, the Kenney Memorial Hospital functioned as a private facility for African Americans. In 1934, it became Community Hospital, the first integrated hospital in the city.
Dr. Kenney’s efforts paved the way for others. He fought to integrate northern hospitals, to ensure the survival of the two remaining Black medical schools, Howard and Meharry, and the need for every Black physician to devote their careers to the health needs of the Black community.
We can all learn from Dr. Kenney’s story. Not simply because he was a physician, founder of hospitals, or a key member of an influential organization, but rather because he is a role model to perseverance.
In a quiet and dignified manner, Dr. Kenney tirelessly changed the course of history for African Americans by improving health care where none existed.