Journalist Karen Jordan, a graduate of Wellesley College and Stanford University, is currently researching the lives of her great-great-grandfather, who was the first Black doctor in Houston, Texas, and her great-grandfather, the first Black doctor in Coweta County near Atlanta. Both men were originally from Troup County, Georgia, and attended Clark Atlanta University. This is their story.
Meharry Medical College has graduated at least 15 percent of all Black doctors in the United States, according to the Nashville-based university history, many the sons of slaves. Georgia native John Henry Jordan was one of them and his story is still being told 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
Jordan was born in Hogansville, Ga., to Berry and Isabella Jordan. After being freed from slavery, Berry Jordan became a sharecropper. He expected his son to do the same, but John Jordan had other plans. Even though he knew little about the world beyond the backbreaking work of picking cotton, he decided there had to be something better. Helping people overcome illness was his goal, perhaps fueled by the fact his own mother died when he was just two years old.
By the age of 10, Jordan found a role model: Dr. Edward Ramsey, Troup County’s first Black physician. Ramsey, an 1880 graduate of Meharry Medical College (known as Central Tennessee College at the time), was himself a Hogansville native.
Jordan modeled his path after Ramsey’s, enrolling at Clark Atlanta University (formerly Clark College) before being accepted to Meharry Medical College. It was a victory for Jordan even though his own father was adamantly opposed to his plans.
Undeterred, Jordan relocated to Tennessee. Eager to learn, he excelled in the classroom but later faced a dilemma common to many students today: a lack of funds. By the fall of 1894, unable to pay his tuition, he had to drop out of school. Although humiliated, he persevered, working odd jobs for months to raise money for his tuition. He finally returned to school a year later, making his graduation in 1896 as valedictorian of his class that much sweeter. By the time he went back to Hogansville after graduation, the town was badly in need of a Black physician. Dr. Ramsey had relocated to Houston, Texas, becoming the first Black doctor to practice medicine there.
While John was anxious to prove his father wrong, his days in Troup County were a struggle. It was difficult for those he knew to accept him as a doctor, so he taught school by day to earn a living, becoming what was known as a “sundown doctor,” referring to physicians who worked other jobs during the day while practicing medicine at night.
After two years, Jordan had had enough. He relocated to Newnan, becoming the first Black doctor in Coweta County, and married Dr. Ramsey’s daughter, Mollie, the same year.
Jordan’s career flourished in Newnan. He built the first Black hospital in the county. After the tragic crib death of their infant son, he and Mollie welcomed another son, Edward, in 1900, making their family complete.
Some Newnan residents in recent years could still recall Edward’s birth.
“It was like a prince being born,” they said.
Life seemed perfect until one day tragedy struck. Jordan was on his way to make a house call when his car stalled. While he checked the gas tank, a passerby lit a match, causing the gasoline fumes to explode, burning John’s upper torso. He died 72 hours later. He was 42. His death “was mourned by both races and all classes of citizens,” according to the History of Coweta County, Georgia.
Not only were his own dreams snuffed out that night, but his dream of his only son becoming a doctor was never realized. However, 30 years later, Edward’s son picked up the torch. Karen’s father, Dr. Harold Jordan, graduated from Meharry Medical College and established a career at the university that has lasted for nearly 50 years.