"Our Colored Folks" : Worcester Doctors’ Records and African American Patients
Worcester experienced an era of great change in population during the early nineteenth century, including growth in the town’s small but increasing African American community. I was asked to examine documents of three of Worcester ’s practicing physicians, in particular, to review medical records concerning some of their African American patients.
These documents show the frequency of patients’ visits, when and how the physician received payment for his services and, more infrequently, they offer a description of the specific services provided to people of color at Worcester . I believe these papers exemplify true “partnerships” which became commonplace between white businessmen and African Americans in nineteenth-century Worcester . Like many of the town’s white residents, African Americans established debtor relationships with the town’s doctors, physicians sometimes paid for their services and, in other instances, writing off the debts of African American patients. This was an “understanding” accepted by many businesses and shops in the community so that when local blacks were unable to provide cash payments on accounts, frequently they were allowed to work off their debts.
In a ledger spanning from 1808 through 1815 maintained by Dr. John Green II and Dr. John Green III, for example, two African Americans, Bristol Green and Monday or Domingo Morey made numerous visits. The records of both of these physicians show their outstanding balances and document other people of color among their patients.
Dr. John Green II [1763-1808] was a son of Dr. John Green I, both part of a family that played prominent roles in Worcester history . He studied medicine under his father and practiced in Worcester for 27 years. His son, Dr. John Green III [1784-1865] was a graduate of Brown College and Harvard Medical School . Historian Charles William Nutt writes: “For a half century he was the acknowledged leader of his profession in this section, a student and scholar, gentle and sympathetic with his patients, especially with the women and children. It is generally agreed that he was the greatest of the three physicians of this name who ministered to the people of the town for 98 years. He was the last of four generations who served the community for 135 years without a break.” He was also the founder and benefactor of the Worcester Public Library.
In an additional seven ledger pages in Dr. Green’s handwriting are recorded other patients, “black” in parenthesis following their names along with detailed information about services provided and sometimes medications provided them. Individuals like James [no surname included], Jenny Morey, Levi Harry and Jere Dyer had fluctuating balances, confirming that Dr. Green accepted partial payment of their accounts but still continued to treat them.
Likewise, accounts of Dr. Benjamin Heywood demonstrate that he also had African Americans among his patients. Benjamin Franklin Heywood [1792-1869] was a graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Medical School . He operated a joint practice with Dr. John Green III. In 1820, he married his partner’s sister Nancy Green and after her death in 1827 married her sister Elizabeth R. Green. For more than 50 years Dr. Heywood practiced in Worcester .
Where John Green III inscribed “black” in his ledger, Benjamin Heywood preferred to note which of his patients were “colored”; Heywood’s books also maintain the patient’s name, date of visit, service provided and medication given to African Americans. The nine ledger pages for Heywood’s African American patients also confirm personal bonds forged between the white physician and some of the town’s blacks.
Documentation for Dr. Heywood’s black patients begins in 1821 and concludes in 1853; he sees them at his office, in their home, and on April 4, 1849 , for example, he delivers a healthy child of one of his “colored” patients. Heywood’s notes which are sporadically written in his ledger books, show interesting comments like “a black signs note”, the professions of people of color indebted to him and more importantly, how he was paid as in a notation “April and May works off balance.”
In April of 1832, for example Jack Gardner apparently works off his debt to the physician through some sort of manual labor, which probably included chopping firewood, mending fences, performing odd chores or working in his garden.
Like white inhabitants of Worcester during the early nineteenth century, African Americans seldom relocated, thus establishing a “tight-knit” and stable community of people of color considered dependable and trustworthy in business dealings. The white townspeople referred to their African American population as “our colored people” or “our darkies” and saw them from a benevolent paternalism. In many ways the relationships with Drs. Green and Heywood mirrors what can be seen can also be seen in records kept by Stephen Salisbury and Dr. William Paine, prominent local residents who employed them or merchants like Abraham Lincoln who extended long-term credit to African Americans at his general store on Main Street .