Community Health Centers sprang into existence more than five decades ago as part of a ripple effect of the Civil Rights Movement. Learn about a few of the many influential African American leaders who played major roles in the early days of the health center movement and have dedicated their lives to pursuing equitable health care for all.
Dr. Lula (L.C.) Dorsey
Dr. Dorsey was a Civil Rights advocate, recruited by the prominent civil and women’s rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. Dorsey went on to work at the Delta Health Center, the first rural Community Health Center, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
“The real thing is to understand the political, social, and economic structures and how you overcome [them] if they are barriers or you seize control of them.” – Dr. Dorsey
Dr. John W. Hatch
Dr. John W. Hatch is a nationally known public health leader who was involved in the nation’s first health centers, including helping to launch the Delta Community Health Center in 1965. He pioneered approaches to addressing social drivers of health, from building latrines and installing mosquito netting to starting a farm cooperative.
Jessie Collins Trice, BSN, MPH
Jessie Collins Trice was the former Chair of NACHC’s Board of Directors. Trice founded the Economic Opportunity Family Health Center, now known as Jessie Trice Community Health System, Miami’s first Community Health Center.
Dr. Robert Smith
Dr. Robert Smith helped to organize the Medical Committee on Human Rights in Mississippi, which provided medical services to activists throughout Freedom Summer. In 1965, Smith and fellow activists secured funding from the Office of Equal Opportunity to launch a pilot community healthcare clinic in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, which became the Delta Health Center.
Recently, Dr. Smith told Kaiser Health News: “The Community Health Center movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believed that all people have a right to health care.”
Janie B. Geer, LPN
Janie B. Geer was a nurse turned activist who served on NACHC’s Board of Directors in multiple roles over nearly four decades. Her passion and vision of high-quality affordable health care for all led to one of her most enduring legacies as a founding board member of Park West Health Systems in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1971.
Dr. Marilyn Gaston
Dr. Gaston’s drive to study medicine stemmed from her commitment to ending the inequalities in health care. She helped to establish Lincoln Heights Health Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. This sense of purpose propelled her through the ranks of the U.S. Public Health Service, eventually becoming an Assistant Surgeon General and Rear Admiral—the second-only African American woman to do so at the time.
“As my training progressed, I knew I had to dedicate my career to helping poor Black communities obtain access to quality health care and improve their health outcomes.” – Dr. Gaston
Dr. Aaron Shirley
Dr. Aaron Shirley was a health care innovator and Civil Rights activist who dedicated his life and career to ending the extreme disparities that exist in America’s health care system. The first African American resident in pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Dr. Shirley was a cofounder of the second Community Health Center in Mississippi: the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson.