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Beside the Troubled Waters

A Black Doctor Remembers Life, Medicine, and Civil Rights in an Alabama Town

Sonnie Wellington Hereford III and Jack D. Ellis

Publication Year: 2011


Beside the Troubled Waters is a memoir by an African American physician in Alabama whose story in many ways typifies the lives and careers of black doctors in the south during the segregationist era while also illustrating the diversity of the black experience in the medical profession. Based on interviews conducted with Hereford over ten years, the account includes his childhood and youth as the son of a black sharecropper and Primitive Baptist minister in Madison County, Alabama, during the Depression; his education at Huntsville’s all-black Councill School and medical training at Meharry Medical College in Nashville; his medical practice in Huntsville’s black community beginning in 1956; his efforts to overcome the racism he met in the white medical community; his participation in the civil rights movement in Huntsville; and his later problems with the Medicaid program and state medical authorities, which eventually led to the loss of his license.


Hereford’s memoir stands out because of its medical and civil rights themes, and also because of its compelling account of the professional ruin Hereford encountered after 37 years of practice, as the end of segregation and the federal role in medical care placed black doctors in competition with white ones for the first time.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

I am pleased to acknowledge the assistance of numerous individuals in the preparation of Dr. Hereford’s autobiography. Historian Waymon E. Burke at the Huntsville branch of Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama, who played a key role in helping Herefordproduce his 1999 documentary...

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pp. 1-9

I first met Dr. Sonnie Wellington Hereford III in 1996 at a public screening of amateur film footage that he had made during Huntsville’s civil rights demonstrations of the early 1960s. As I learned from the film, Hereford had played an active part in the local sit-in campaign of 1962, which had forced the city to integrate its lunch counters and, soon afterward, its parks and theaters. Next, he ...

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1. Through a Glass Darkly

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pp. 11-36

I was born on the exact spot where the Dairy Queen stands, out on Max Luther Drive. That’s where my house was, the exact spot. The place was in the country back then, north of the city limits, but you wouldn’t think so now. Across the road, right where the Dollar Store and the flea market sit, was my grandfather Tom’s house, with a barn and a cornfield just beyond it. To the ...

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2. To Be a Doctor

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pp. 37-54

Two weeks into my first term, I faced the worst crisis I experienced during the whole time I was at Meharry. Not since my early days as a stuttering first-grader at Councill had I felt the way I did now, sure that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. My feelings came not just from the fact that my classmates were all older—some were veterans or had already started their careers—but from ...

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3. Medical Practice under Segregation

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pp. 55-85

The daybook I kept when I started my practice shows that the very first day I was open for business, I had four patients and made eleven dollars. The second day, I had seven patients and made fifteen dollars. By the end of the month, I was seeing twenty to twenty-five patients a day and bringing in between forty and fifty dollars. By the end of my second year, I was seeing fifty to sixty...

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4. Bringing Freedom to the Rocket City

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pp. 86-110

I first heard about the sit-in from an old classmate named James Fields, who called me at my office. He told me that Rev. Ezekiel Bell, the pastor of a new Presbyterian church on Meridian Street who had just moved from Memphis, was inviting everyone to a mass meeting in support of students from Alabama A&M and Councill High. He said the students had just started a sit-in...

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5. Integrating the Hospital and the Schools

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pp. 111-126

In the midst of our sit-in campaign, the leaders of the Community Services Committee elected me a committee of one to go and talk to the hospital administrator about integrating the hospital. The administrator’s name was Mr. Larry Rigsby, and I had several meetings with him. At the first one, Mr. Rigsby told me: “Dr. Hereford, I can see it coming. I know we’re gonna have to do something...

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6. Troubles and Trials

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pp. 127-143

It was about 1970 when Medicaid came to Alabama, and when you think about it, it should have been a good thing for me because Medicaid was supposed to help poor people pay for medical care. That should have helped my situation, but that’s not the way it turned out. It was the start of a lot of trouble for me. For one thing, it was hard to keep up with the paperwork. We had some ...

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pp. 144-149

Unable to earn a living through the practice of medicine, Hereford faced extraordinary hardships in the years after 1993. Adding to his financial woes was the painful loss of his place in the black community and the special status that physicians had traditionally enjoyed. As his former patients drifted off to other doctors, he struggled with how to reaffirm his own sense of worth....


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pp. 151-166


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pp. 167-171


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pp. 173-177

E-ISBN-13: 9780817385064
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317218

Page Count: 177
Publication Year: 2011