Dr. H. M. Green, Early 20th Century Knoxville Physician

The information and photos below were excerpted from a lengthy investigative article published by NPR.org — full link is below.

Dr. H. M. Green — source: Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Knoxville

When Dr. H.M. Green opened his new medical office building on East Vine Avenue in 1922, Black Knoxville residents could be seen only in the basement of Knoxville General Hospital. They were barred from the city’s other three medical centers.

Green, one of America’s leading Black physicians, spent his life working to end health inequities like this. He installed an X-ray machine, an operating room, and a private infirmary in his building to serve Black patients. On the first floor was a pharmacy.

Today the Green Medical Arts Building has been replaced by a tangle of freeways that were built after the city’s Black business district was bulldozed in a midcentury urban renewal project.

But the health gaps Green labored to narrow still divide this community. And if segregation is less apparent in medical offices today, its legacy lives on in crushing medical debt that disproportionately burdens this city’s Black community.

In and around Knoxville, residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods are more than twice as likely as those in largely white neighborhoods to owe money for medical bills, Urban Institute credit bureau data shows — it’s one of the widest racial disparities in the country.

“African Americans don’t seek health care until we are really, really sick, and then it costs more,” said Tabace Burns, a former emergency room nurse in Knoxville. Burns, who is also a leader in her church, said she routinely helps members of her congregation find medical care they should have sought earlier.

In ‘The Bottom’

The story of how Knoxville’s Black residents came to be its primary victims of medical debt is written in the city’s changing landscape.

Just outside downtown, below refurbished office buildings and former warehouses, is an area once called The Bottom, long the heart of the Black community.

This area persevered through decades of Jim Crow segregation and violence. In one of the worst episodes, mobs of white rioters in 1919 vandalized Black-owned stores and shot residents after a young Black man was accused of killing a white woman.

It was here that Black physicians like Green opened medical offices alongside grocers, pool halls, and funeral homes. Knoxville’s first Black millionaire, a former enslaved man who’d made a fortune in horse racing and saloons, built a YMCA. Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway performed at the Gem Theatre.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the city systematically wiped out The Bottom and surrounding neighborhoods in an urban renewal and highway-building campaign. Officials razed more than 500 homes, 15 churches, and more than 100 Black-owned businesses, including Green’s medical building.

Left: Central Street and Vine Avenue, pictured in 1949, was the heart of the Black business district in Knoxville, Tenn., with grocers, pool halls, a YMCA, and the Gem Theatre, where Billie Holiday played. Right: Today a tangle of freeways stands where Knoxville’s Black business district once thrived. Source: Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville, Tenn. and Jamar Coach for KHN and NPR

Source for this content: “Why Black Americans Are more Likely To Be Saddled with Medical Debt,” by Noam Levy; 27 October 2022; NPR “All Things Considered.”  https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/10/27/1131984451/medical-debt-racial-inequities


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