Dr. LaTonya Washington
Dr. LaTonya Washington, head of the Bluff City Medical Society, a Black-led organization of doctors focused on people of color, says that medicine is a historically patriarchal field. “I do believe that women in medicine have really become a powerful force and that we have a big voice.” Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50 

Black doctors have persevered in Memphis for more than a century, even when faced with rejection by white medical institutions that refused to work alongside Black people and women. These doctors created their own spaces in organizations like the Bluff City Medical Society, which has been at the center of Black health in Memphis since the early 1900s.

Today, the organization’s eight-member, all-Black-women leadership team is educating the community through the pandemic and mentoring the next generation.

Dr. Miles Vandahurst Lynk, a Tennessee native, founded the society. Lynk organized and created several resources for Black medical professionals including the first national medical journal for Black doctors and a Black medical college.

Dr. LaTonya Washington, president of the organization, grew with the mentorship of the Bluff City Medical Society starting as a medical student. Today, an internal medicine and pediatrics physician, Washington thinks deeply about how to build on the organization’s legacy of service and how to sustain it for future generations of Black medical professionals.

They work in a predominantly Black city with an overall poverty rate of 21.7% — 26.1% for Black Memphians — according to the 2020 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet from the University of Memphis School of Social Work. COVID-19 has hit Black and brown communities hardest and there are disparities in vaccination efforts.

Carrington J. Tatum, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism: Can you tell me a little more about the Bluff City Medical Society’s history in Memphis?

Dr. LaTonya Washington, Bluff City Medical Society: To kind of start at the beginning, the Bluff City Medical Society was really started as an organization for physicians of color. In the Memphis area, as well as nationally, Black physicians were not able to join organizations, such as the American Medical Association and the Memphis Medical Association. Those organizations excluded Black physicians.

Why was it important to be a member of those organizations?

The American Medical Association was one of the largest conglomerates of physicians in the United States. They would have conferences (and) they have medical journals where physicians were able to publish scientific articles. They could talk about new developments in medical care, how to treat patients more appropriately, more effectively. If there were new medications or new drugs that came out, then those things were promoted by the American Medical Association.

Since African American physicians were unable to be a member of those organizations, then they were really left out of that, and they didn’t have access to the latest, and most up to date, medical information and medical treatment guidelines. And so that was really where Dr. Lynk saw there was a lack in (resources) for African American physicians, and so he wanted to be able to bridge that gap.

What does the Bluff City Medical Society’s work look like today?

We certainly have grown over the years. Right now, we have a base of about 250 physicians. We don’t have only Black physicians, we include anyone who wants to join our organization who is committed to serving the underserved and has a particular interest in serving communities of color.

We really have a focus on getting underrepresented minority students into medical school. We mentor almost all of the African American students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. They have individual mentors within the Bluff City Medical Society (and) we meet with them one-on-one and in group settings to really help them and encourage them throughout their medical journey.

When you were coming through medical school, how did you learn about the society?

At the University of Tennessee, there weren’t very many students of color in the class. And so we really stuck together as a community. Some of the other students of color had mentors within the Bluff City Medical Society and they told us, ‘Hey, there’s an organization, the Bluff City Medical Society; it’s all physicians of color, this is where you need to be.”

Being one of few Black students in your class, were there things that you wouldn’t have known otherwise if your mentors at the Bluff City Medical Society hadn’t told you?

Yes is the short answer.

Medicine hasn’t always been a friendly place for students of color or for women and so there are certainly challenges involved with that.

The National Medical Association is the national organization for physicians of color and so Bluff City Medical Society would be considered to be the Memphis chapter of that organization. They do have a student counterpart of that national organization called the Student National Medical Association.

A lot of the things I knew came from medical students that were before me and alumni that were before me that were involved in the Student National Medical Association or the SNMA. Then those SNMA members in turn brought us into the fold with the Bluff City Medical Society and so we were able to get support and growth there.

How important was the Bluff City Medical Society in bringing Black women into the field?

The Bluff City Medical Society has been diverse in regards to the officers for many years. One of the first Black women to practice in the city of Memphis, Dr. Fannie Kneeland, she was actually the first woman president of the Bluff City Medical Society. And she was really around during the initial stages of the Bluff City (Medical Society). So we always had both men and women in leadership in the organization.

I do think that it’s very important that women had a seat at the table very early on and (were) able to provide leadership for the organization.

How does having a board of all Black women affect the organization’s approach to the educational efforts you mentioned and internal conversations about the medical field?

Portraits of the eight Black doctors leading the Bluff City Medical Society.
Bluff City Medical Society is led by all Black women. Photo courtesy of Bluff City Medical Society’s website.

I feel that medicine has always been a very patriarchal type of profession, where men were always put out front. I do believe that women in medicine have really become a powerful force and that we have a big voice.

We’ve often held positions or felt that we’ve been slighted by our male counterparts professionally and so we’re able to see things from a different perspective and able to address those types of things in a meaningful way.

As women, we are nurturers, we are educators, and so I personally feel that helps us to communicate more effectively to our target population, and help care for patients in a more effective way. Not to say that men aren’t good physicians, but being a Black woman, I personally think that as a woman physician that we do kind of have the upper hand.

What about approaches to the pandemic and vaccination efforts?

When we talk about all of these things surrounding COVID-19 and vaccine access or really access to care in general, it’s important that the people in the community see medical professionals that look like them that are encouraging them to follow the health initiatives and health directives as far as wearing masks, remaining safe, socially distancing — and of course, even taking the vaccine.

I think it’s important that we show that African American health-care professionals trust this vaccine and that we got the vaccine (several) months ago, and that we’re all still doing well and not really having any side effects.

Did you always want to be a doctor?

I cannot remember saying anything else that I wanted to do with life, other than be a doctor, so I really feel like it’s my calling.

I finished my medical school here in Memphis many years ago. I went off to residency and I worked outside of the area for several years. And when I came back to the Memphis area in 2011, I really sought out the Bluff City Medical Society, because I knew that it was a place that I would be able to get involved with my community. I knew that it would be a place where I would be able to network professionally and build meaningful relationships with community leaders, and with my fellow physicians.

I wasn’t really coming back to Memphis to be the Bluff City Medical Society president. But I think that my history with the organization from way back in medical school, until today, it really drove me from a passive standpoint, to really want to be able to give back as much to this organization as I possibly can. And also, to be able to make sure that the organization will be able to continue on and be very strong for many years to come.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com

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