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Meharry Medical College looks back on history of service

11/7/2001 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

By the Rev. Hilda R. Davis*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - An act of kindness that a family of ex-slaves extended to a white man 125 years ago led to the creation of a health care facility for the poor and underserved.

That event was remembered recently on the anniversary of the founding of Meharry Medical College, the only free-standing professional school affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

During an Oct. 28 worship service at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, Meharry President John E. Maupin reflected on the historically black school's history and service.

"I'm blessed to be a part of Meharry Medical College. I was taught by one of my mentors that with great blessings come great responsibility," he said.

Maupin has taken that responsibility seriously and has built coalitions to move Meharry ahead financially and academically. In his message on the 125th anniversary of the college's founding, he credited Meharry's success to an "institutional spirituality" emphasized in the school motto, "Worship of God through service to mankind," and reflected in its history.

"Our institutional spirituality has allowed us to stick to our mission of caring for the poor and underserved for 125 years," he told the congregation, filled with friends of Clark Memorial and Meharry. The college's history is intertwined with that of the church.

Maupin's message marked the beginning of a yearlong celebration through community events, culminating in alumni reunions and a commencement exercise in May.

In his remarks, Maupin recounted the Meharry story, which began when a family of freed slaves had the courage to answer a white man's knock on their door. In the early 1800s, the knock may have been cause for fear: the family risked possible capture and return to slavery. However, the ex-slaves recognized their responsibility to serve others, Maupin said. The family's name is unknown, but he noted: "It was not who did it, but the spirit in which it was done."

Upon opening the door, the family found a young, white man needing help. Despite the risk involved, the family helped Samuel Meharry, whose salt wagon had fallen into a ditch. Afterward, he promised to reward their service by doing "something for your race."

Fifty years later, a financial contribution from Meharry and his brothers, in addition to contributions from the Methodist Episcopal Church and others, led to the 1876 founding of the Medical Department of Central Tennessee College. In 1900, the name was changed to Meharry Medical College.

As one of the 11 predominantly black colleges historically related to the United Methodist Church, the institution receives support from the Black College Fund. It is the only "free-standing" graduate and professional school of the 124 United Methodist-related colleges and universities. The college's mission is to serve the "unserved and underserved," and it continues to send a large number of graduates to places that otherwise would have no medical care. To ensure its future, the college has embarked on a capital campaign to raise $125 million by 2004.

Meharry's institutional spirituality has enabled it to survive through years of struggle.

"I believe that this spirituality is a result of Meharry being formed in a religious community -- Clark Chapel," said Dr. Fred Fielder, former dean of the Meharry School of Dentistry and long-time member of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church. "The Clark Chapel and Central Tennessee College were both on Franklin Street, and possibly when Dr. Braden, who was a
Methodist minister, looked around for a place for the new medical department to train black students ... it seemed reasonable to have them meet in a black Methodist church."

Clark Chapel continued its connection with the school through the years. In 1931, the college moved to North Nashville, and the church moved the same area in the late 1930s.

Charlotte Walker, a retired physician and daughter of a former head of surgery, remembers moving to the current location on Fourteenth Avenue. "My father joined Clark in 1930, while he was a student at Meharry. I was 4 years old when the entire church marched from our old location in a Seventh Adventist Church to our own new church building." She and her brother, Matthew, are still active in the life of Clark.

Another member, Birdie Brown, married a Meharry dentist, and together they reared five children. "All of our children were active in everything at Clark," she recalled. Four of their children graduated from Meharry Medical College.

Pam and Leon Harris, medical students at Meharry, represent the future of both institutions as they train to work in medicine while at the same time providing service at Clark. They and their four boys were invited to visit Clark by a Meharry professor, and they stayed.

The Rev. John Corry, the first chaplain and director of pastoral services at Meharry, was also a pastor of Clark Memorial. He began at the college under the presidency of Lloyd Elam and continues providing spiritual leadership today under Maupin. He also is president of the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination's supreme court.

Said Corry: "I took the position of spiritual leader at Meharry because the motto of 'Worship of God through service to mankind' is the same as my own understanding of ministry."

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*Davis is a United Methodist clergywoman. She teaches religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School and medical ethics at Tennessee Sate University in Nashville.

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