Building Blocks, Challenges & Triumphs
My integration of the Rex Hospital staff in 1977 was not to go unchallenged. The mid 1970s welcomed the arrival of a number of young, energetic African American doctors to Raleigh and Wake County. At that time, Rex was located at the corner of Wade Avenue and Saint Mary’s Street. That medical staff had been devoid of African American physicians.
The frequency of my acquisition of patients who had come to my practice after being delivered at Rex Hospital prompted the Wilkerson siblings, Drs. Annie Louise, Louis, and Charles, to encourage me to join the Rex medical staff. I had developed a respectable relationship with the Wilkerson physicians once it was revealed to them that their father, Dr. Charles B. Wilkerson, Sr., delivered my wife, Geraldine at home on South Blount Street located in Southeast Raleigh. I applied for staff privileges, and with the Wilkersons as my sponsors, was granted full staff privileges in the Department of Pediatrics.
On the occasion of my responding to a call from Dr. Annie Louise to attend an emergency cesarean section, I was stopped by two security officers as I traversed the usual emergency room route taken by physicians entering the hospital. I had been greeted warmly by several Caucasian physicians as I made my way through the emergency room. The two security men asked me where I was going, and when I replied “up to attend a cesarean section,” they demanded that I show them some identification. A nurse overhearing the conversation interceded and assured them that I was indeed a physician. Prior to her intervention, I had told the officers that several of my colleagues had addressed me by my first name, and further, I did not see them stop anyone else demanding identification. When I showed them my pager, they both responded, “That doesn’t mean a thing to us, everybody has one of those.” Leaving them still questioning my identity, I went on about my business up to the operating room.
The next day, as I was busy trying to keep to my scheduled appointments seeing patients, my staff told me that the chief executive officer of Rex Hospital was on the phone. When I answered his call, his question was, “Did you have a problem yesterday with security and if so, would you tell me about it?” I repeated the challenge scenario to him. He stated he would investigate further and get back with me. About two hours later, he called back and apologized for how I had been treated and assured me that Rex would not tolerate that type of behavior from its employees. Further, he told me, those two officers had been fired. I was not aware until he told me that several nurses who had witnessed the exchange between the security officers and me had gone to higher authorities at the hospital on my behalf. I had no further such incidents in reference to my physician’s status. I would have audiences of several nurses and ancillary personnel as I attended my patients, particularly non-African American, in the emergency room, at C-sections, or in the nurseries. They were eager to learn my techniques, both procedural and interpersonal. At staff or departmental meetings, I would be the only physician of color in attendance. The newer African American doctors in town would eventually join the Rex staff in their various specialties, but I was the first doctor of color to have a regular presence there. For me, that accomplishment was another peak that had been climbed and conquered.
A year or so after a number of younger African American physicians arrived in Raleigh, I convinced five of the newcomers to enter into a discussion about trying to erect a medical building. All of them embraced the idea, and together we began searching for suitable property in the Southeast Raleigh area. James Colson, DDS, who was already in a building, was invited to join us, and he accepted our invitation. Jerry Wiley, MD, who was finishing his residency in pediatrics, was invited to join the group from the very beginning. Ronald Gaither, MD, and Bertron Haywood MD, both specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, and Leroy Burton, MD, internal medicine rounded out the group of six. At long last, my previous attempt under the B.H.M.W. Corporation seemed to become a more realistic entity. Years earlier, I had presented the idea of erecting a building to Charles Holland, an optometrist, Robert McDowell, a family practice specialist, and George Walker, a dentist. My idea was that we could consolidate our practices into one location, preferably in Southeast Raleigh. From those discussions, we formed a corporation that we named B.H.M.W. We were successful in purchasing properties in the vicinity of my office on Person Street. For various and sundry reasons, our efforts to formulate building plans fizzled, and each of the other three moved into freestanding offices. The corporation continued in existence until the deaths of Holland, McDowell, and Walker. Although that peak was not attained, the lessons I learned trying to do so would be invaluable. We were four professionals, and though not able to realize our plan to purchase or build a medical building together, remained dear friends through all the trials and tribulations of trying to realize that goal. We remained close friends throughout various life stages with our families.
One afternoon, when five of the six of us—Burroughs, Colson, Wiley, Haywood, and Burton—were busy at our individual offices, we each received an urgent call from the sixth of us, the equally busy Dr. Ronald Gaither. Somehow, Ron had found out about a plot of land in the shadow of Wake Medical Center that was listed as foreclosure. For us to have first access to the land, we needed, as a group, to come up with $10,000 in less than two hours. We extended our confidence to Ron by writing our checks, and he navigated to each of our offices to retrieve them so he could make a deposit to hold the land. Several of us would view the lot later that day, and we were thrilled about its location and potential.
We held a formal meeting that evening to form the partnership officially. Thus began the laborious task of jumping through hoops to bring our plans to fruition. One of the first questions that arose was what should we name the facility? I volunteered the name Sunnybrook Multi-Specialty Medical Center. With little discussion, the name was welcomed and accepted by the group.
We began having frequent meetings with our chosen law firm to establish articles of incorporation, and later with financial institutions to seek financing of our project. After completing the legal and financial details, we met with several architects before finally selecting one. We would not accept excuses from those of us who claimed we were not able to meet. At times, it became necessary for us to use specific terms to remind the one who claimed he had no time to meet that he needed to get there as soon as possible.
We held fast to the notion that, although we were very close friends, we had embarked upon a major project as business partners. Therefore, the business relationship would always be paramount as we moved through the process of erecting the building that would house our medical practices. There were skeptics in the African American community who, when hearing of our plans, said they didn’t think six black guys could stick together to do what we were planning; they would believe it when they saw it. We were bent on making those skeptics believers.
We began meeting as a group with the chosen architects once the deed to the land was in our possession. As we forged deeper into the plans, each of us would have individual meetings with them to discuss how we wanted our offices designed to accommodate our individual specialties and the square footage desired. We decided to include a charge per square foot for each office as a percentage of the total mortgage payment. After negotiating with several financial institutions, we finally accepted the offering of one that would handle financing of the building process and subsequent financing once the building was complete. To our chagrin, we were required to make a deposit of ten percent of the total cost of the building and finance the remainder. Our challenge was to produce approximately $60,000, to be paid in equal amounts by each partner, to secure the loan.
We met the challenge successfully, and after several months of intricate planning, held a groundbreaking ceremony on March 5, 1977 that was witnessed by many interested community guests. Dr. Prezell Robinson, President of Saint Augustine’s College, was the guest speaker for the occasion.
All the parties involved with the building construction were introduced during the ceremony. They were as follows: VIC Realty Company; Thigpen, Blue and Stephens, Attorneys at Law; J. C. Buie, Inc., Architect; Mauney Design Associates; Wachovia Mortgage Company; Davidson and Jones Construction Company; North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company; and the Old North State Medical Society.
We moved into the completed structure on October 10, 1977. On that day, I reached the summit of another peak: opening an office in a building I owned along with several other physicians. We had granted ourselves a special level of independence, along with all the responsibilities that such independence entailed. More than 2,000 people attended a formal open house for the community on March 19, 1978. Our achievement would be recognized locally, statewide, and the groundbreaking ceremony was reported in the May 19, 1977 issue of Jet Magazine.
Interestingly, at the open house, one of our Caucasian colleagues asked me about our financing arrangements. When I told him that we were required to pay ten percent of our building cost to secure the loan, he confided in me that he and his partners were in the process of constructing a building in another part of the city and had been granted one hundred percent financing. I surmised that our dollars weren’t worth as much as theirs or that another formula was used to compute our loan. In our deliberations with the building contractor, I was adamant that any and all subcontracts would stipulate a very visible presence of active minority contractors. Our efforts to erect the Sunnybrook Multi-Specialty Medical Center were recognized on February 24, 1978 when the Beta Lambda Sigma Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. inducted the partnership into its Hall of Fame as new pioneers in the medical domain. We would now become employers of a significant number of persons. My office staff increased from three to as many as six at various times. As their employer, I required the highest standards of courtesy and professionalism, and they all adhered to my requirements.
In 2003, after months of deliberations with the Wake County Commissioners, the partnership would successfully sell the Sunnybrook Multi-Specialty Medical Center building to Wake County. That negotiation would signal the end of twenty-six years of dedicated service to the community in that facility by its original builders.
From “Sharing My Journey to a Career in Medicine in a Transition South.” Copyright © 2016 by Frederick D. Burroughs, MD. Used by permission of the author; drfredburroughs.com. Photographs courtesy Burroughs family.