Bainbridge legendary pioneer opened doors for others to succeed in Decatur County

Published 9:20 am Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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Memorial Hospital and Manor wants to celebrate the history African Americans have made in the medical field in and around Decatur County.

Dr. Joseph Howard Griffin was the first African American doctor in Bainbridge. He was born in 1888 and graduated from Savannah State College, now Savannah State University, for his undergrad and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. in 1915 with his Medical Degree. He served in World War 1 as a 1st Lieut. in the US Army Medical Corp. After being honorably discharged, he began his medical career as both a physician and surgeon in Bainbridge, GA.

He spent the early years of his career seeing patients in their homes or transporting them to the FAMU hospital in Tallahassee for more complicated operations.

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On New Year’s Day in 1922, Griffin paired up with Dr. James W. F. Johnson, Bainbridge’s first African American dentist. Their offices were adjoined and located in the Griffin Building at 255 Water Street, sitting atop the then Dr. Cooper’s Drug Store in downtown Bainbridge.

Dr. Griffin married Dr. Johnson’s daughter, Elaine. He opened his first hospital in 1937 and named it the Johnson Memorial Hospital in honor of his business partner and in-laws. The hospital had 18 beds and was located on Water St., above where Material Things is now.

In 1950, he opened The Griffin Hospital and Clinic, a segregated hospital located at 414 N. Broad Street, that now houses the PX that he ran with his brother David Griffin. The hospital had 50 beds and was the largest privately owned hospital for African Americans in Georgia.

Dr. Griffin did much as a pioneer in medicine, serving the local African American population, and he inspired others to pursue careers in medicine. Dr. Louis Sullivan and Dr. LaSalle Leffall are two of many whom Dr. Griffin influenced.

Dr. Sullivan, who grew up in Blakely, was inspired by Dr. Griffin as he was his family doctor and whom he would see when his father’s work took him to the Griffin Hospital. He would go on to become President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1989 – 1993.

Dr. LaSalle Leffall was from Quincy, FL and was good personal friends with Dr. Griffin. He was a cancer surgeon who later became the first Black president of the American Cancer Society and American College of Surgeons.

While Dr. Griffin is credited as the first African American doctor in Bainbridge, other African Americans served in the medical field around that time. Dr. Edward A. R. Lord served as the medical director of the St. Luke Infirmary in Bainbridge.

Memorial Hospital and Manor was built in 1960, and Dr. Stafford was our first African American doctor, joining us in 1977. Dr. Stafford served as an OBGYN to our community for many years and helped bring the most contemporary standards for maternal and newborn care. His modernization made Memorial Hospital a beacon for expecting mothers in southwest Georgia.

Dr. Stafford, originally from Tallahassee, had a connection to Bainbridge. His father helped Dr. Griffin stand up his 50-bed hospital in 1950, and Dr. Stafford visited Dr. Griffin’s hospital many times.

Dr. Stafford broke the color barrier at Memorial Hospital, and soon, other minority doctors followed. Now serving at Memorial Hospital, we have Dr. Winston Price in our pediatric office and Dr. Gloria Browne as an internal medical doctor in the Amelia Medical Plaza. We appreciate their commitment to serving our community and inspiring the next generation.

We are proud of the history that Bainbridge has made in our region and look forward to continuing that legacy through encouraging all people with a desire for the medical field to pursue it.

All historical information was pulled from prior archived newspapers, printed material from the time, or online articles to be as factual as possible.

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