Dr. Helen Barnes

September 16, 2009
Excerpts from Dr. Helen Barnes interview

Excerpts from Dr. Helen Barnes interview

There were 7 women in my class and we all had to meet with the Dean of the University for him to ask us to drop out of school, so that a man could take our position so that they would have a way to support their families.  We just said, “You whistling Dixie fellow, you can go tell that to someone else, because its not going to work here.” And all 7 of us graduated, and we graduated well in the class. But there were times when you wondered whether or not you were going to make it.

“If you come to do a job, you do the job.” That’s what my grandmother said. She said, “Don’t let anybody stop you from doing what it is you want to do.” And I can remember mother telling once when I was crying and cussing about medical school, she said, “You know, they didn’t send for you. You worried them to death until they let you in medical school, so I don’t want to hear this. You just do whatever it takes. And get over it because they didn’t send for you.”And that went through my mind many a day, because they didn’t send for me. The thing to do was to go ahead on and do it.

I didn’t realize was that there is a law on the books in Mississippi—and it may not be there now—but it prohibits black physicians from taking care of white patients. Well, I did not know that, and I had three white patients. Mabel Cole was one of them, and Mabel owned every plantation between Greenwood and Clarksdale.

This vicious group of folks—I forget the name, they were just mean people—they called Miss Mabel Cole and told her that if she didn’t stop coming to me as a patient, they were going to see that this man in town, who worked at the electric company and who had 5 children, lost his job. They couldn’t hurt Mabel, and they couldn’t do a whole bunch to me because the other doctors in town were on my side. So we—Mabel and I—got together and decided that she could come to the clinic; she and I wouldn’t meet for dinner anymore. We lived on different sides of the street. She lived on the rich side of town and I lived on the railroad tracks.It didn’t matter to me. My house was clean too.

The thing was, you had to put up with what was going on and wait. And sure enough the voter registration came, and teaching people how to take the exam. I had to take the exam to vote the first time. I had to pay a poll tax to vote the first time in Greenwood. Yeah, I did it. I needed to vote, so I paid and I went up and took that nonsensical exam and passed.

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