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Meharry Medical College arose from freed slaves' kindness

Student doctor Dionne Tompkins treats patient Reginald Hill during a clinic at the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.
Student doctor Dionne Tompkins treats patient Reginald Hill during a clinic at the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Countless underserved people have received health care for nearly a century and a half from graduates of Meharry Medical College, the nation’s largest private, historically Black academic health sciences center.

Founded in Nashville in 1876, 11 years after the Civil War ended, Meharry’s original mission of educating newly freed Black citizens to serve the underserved began thanks to a freed slave family’s act of kindness decades earlier to a young white traveler, and post-war support from Methodist clergymen and laymen.

Taking a risk to help a boy in need

On a rainy Kentucky night in the 1820s, Samuel Meharry’s wagon, loaded with salt, slid into a muddy ditch, and the 16-year-old boy’s search for help led him to the cabin of a Black family recently freed from slavery. Despite fear of slave hunters, the family risked their freedom to provide Meharry food and shelter.

The next day, the family helped free the wagon, and Meharry continued his journey, vowing that when he was able someday, he would repay the Black family’s act of kindness by doing something to help their race.

Keeping a promise, decades later

In 1876, Meharry and his four brothers fulfilled that promise by pledging $30,000 in cash and real property to fund a medical department at Central Tennessee College, a school founded in Nashville a few years earlier by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Other contributors to establishing the medical department were the Freedman's Aid Society, which was organized by the Methodists to provide formal education to the freed men, women and children, and the John F. Slater Fund.

The medical department, the first in the South for Blacks, received a separate charter in 1915 and became Meharry Medical College.

Partnering with The United Methodist Church

Meharry is now one of 11 United Methodist-related Black colleges and universities that receives support from the church’s Black College Fund.

“Our ties with The United Methodist Church keep us grounded, and the funding provided by the Black College Fund allows us to do things that it would be difficult to do otherwise,” said Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry.

“For example, unrestricted contributions through the fund for operating expenses have played a vital role in helping to sustain Meharry’s mission over five decades. These funds are essential in maintaining the margin of excellence at Meharry, and because they are unrestricted, they can be put to immediate use where they are needed most.”

Leading the way in modern medicine

Today, Meharry is the largest U.S. medical college dedicated primarily to educating Black health care professionals, with medicine, dentistry, graduate studies and health data as its primary fields of study. More than 40 percent of practicing Black dentists in America are Meharry alumni.

“If you look at the structure Meharry has laid for Black practitioners in the health sciences, we are looking at great things ahead for Black physicians, dentists, researchers, public health practitioners and health data scientists,” Hildreth said. “The future of minorities in the health sciences, those who study it and those who teach it, is indeed bright, and Meharry is positioned at the forefront.”

In 2021, Meharry received over 9,600 applications for 115 slots available for first-year medical students in various programs, including Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Dental Surgery, Master of Science in Public Health and Doctor of Philosophy.

“Each graduate is going out into the world to practice our time-honored motto, ‘Worship of God through service to mankind,’” Hildreth said. “They make me proud. They distinguish this institution with their service to communities across America.”

Tom Gillem is a freelancer from Brentwood, Tennessee. The contact for this story is Joe Iovino. Contact him by email.

This story was published on April 21, 2022.