Under the Knife by Hugh Pearson
How a Wealthy Negro Surgeon Wielded Power in the Jim Crow South

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Synopsis

Hugh Pearson grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, encouraged by his parents to believe that nothing was beyond his reach. If he needed any further inspiration, he could look to his great-uncle, Dr. Joseph Griffin. Although Griffin had stayed in the Deep South, he managed to become a pillar of his community at a time when Afro-Americans -- then called Negroes -- rarely prospered. He became the first Negro surgeon in south Georgia, donating millions of dollars to Afro-American institutions and building the largest private hospital for Afro-Americans in the State. Griffin inspired Louis Sullivan, who later became President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services, to go into medicine and a young Hosea Williams, who grew up to be one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most trusted aides, to aspire to be someone important. He served as a father figure to Donald Hollowell, the lawyer who became a mentor to Vernon Jordan and earned the nickname Georgia's "Mr. Civil Rights" for his legal battles on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other activists.

In "Under the Knife," Pearson embarks on a personal journey to learn more about his great-uncle and the rest of the men in his family. What he has uncovered are cold truths about the moral complexities of success and power in a racist society. His uncle's fortune was largely built on performing backdoor abortions for women of all colors, on treating sexually transmitted diseases in Caucasian men too embarrassed to seek help from their regular doctors, and on coercing donations of property from many patients when they couldn't afford to pay their medical bills.

Pearson concludes that the same drive and willingness to bend the rules thathelped men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan become wealthy and powerful in less enlightened eras were just as necessary in an ambitious Afro-American man like his great-uncle, who faced a far more difficult path. Pearson discusses his great-uncle's relationships with southern Jews who befriended him and uncovers the buried history of Afro-American physicians in the Jim Crow era. He dramatizes the struggles of other successful men in his family, charting his forefathers' rise from slavery to ownership of large Georgia farms and flourishing businesses in Jacksonville, Florida, and the accomplishments of his own father, who became the first person of any color in his rural Georgia county to earn a medical degree.

With "Under the Knife," Hugh Pearson brings to life the pains and triumphs, as well as the ambiguities and fortitude, involved in the rise of middle-class and wealthy Afro-Americans, and restores the true legacy of an overlooked and oversimplified part of the American experience.

 

About Hugh Pearson

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Hugh Pearson, author of The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America, which was selected by The New York Times Book Review as a 1994 Notable Book of the Year, is also a former editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal and columnist for the Village Voice. He also serves on the board of directors of the New York Civil Liberties Union and is a member of the Authors Guild. He lives with his family in New York City.
 
Published February 21, 2000 by Free Press. 256 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Publishers Weekly

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Offering a thumbnail history of black medicine in the South, this biography of an unusual anti-hero, who happens to be Pearson's great uncle, is as controversial in its own way as was Pearson's reassessment of the legacy of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers in The Shadow of the Panther.

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