Dr. Cornelius N. Dorsette (220995)
Credit: Contributed

One of my loyal readers, after reading a Classroom profile on the famed architect Vertner Tandy, noted I had cited Dr. Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette, his wife’s father, as the first African-American to pass the Alabama medical examination. Her great-aunt, Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon, was the first Black woman and the first woman to pass the state’s medical examination.

It appears to me that both are worthy of a fuller discussion in this column, which I will do, beginning with Dorsette.

If we are certain that Dorsette was the first licensed or certified Black physician in Alabama, we are less certain about the year of his birth. Various accounts of his life has it in a range of anywhere between 1851 and 1859. There is some problem, too, about his place of birth, although a consensus lists it as Eden, N.C., in Rockingham County.

According to the “Encyclopedia of Alabama,” Dorsette was the first of David and Lucinda Dorsette’s six children. Dorsette’s father was a farmer, but he was determined that his children would get a good education and his oldest child later attended Hampton Institute, where one of his classmates was Booker T. Washington. He graduated in 1878.

It was while working as a driver and handyman for a doctor that Dorsette was inspired to seek a career in medicine, and he later enrolled at Syracuse University but was forced to drop out because of health problems. After recovery, the doctor who had employed and inspired him provided the financial assistance for him to attend medical school at the University of the City of New York. Because he was Black his application was denied, but he was later accepted at the University of Buffalo medical school, becoming the school’s second African-American graduate in 1882, a year after Washington founded Tuskegee Institute.

For the next two years, Dorsette worked in a variety of medical professions, including the poor house and the insane asylum of Wayne County. There was also a stint at the psychiatric ward of the hospital in Lyons, N.Y. Through these positions, he was able to accrue enough money to repay his benefactor by 1884.

In 1883, while seeking Washington’s advice about future locations and employment, the eminent leader suggested he move to Montgomery, Ala., where his services were in need and would be greatly appreciated. That was sound advice and Dorsette agreed, but upon arrival he was met with an obstacle that was a remaining vestige of Jim Crow. Moreover, the process was an arduous one, requiring the candidate to undergo six days of examination by either a county or state board of medical examiners. And all of the examiners were white men. Even so, Dorsette passed the exams and became the first licensed Black physician in the state.

Another obstacle confronting Dorsette was the reluctance of his own people to seek him out. The age-old adage that the white man’s ice was colder and that Blacks, no matter the profession, were not as qualified as whites, kept potential Black patients away, even as he acquired a winning reputation in the white medical community.

But this rejection by Blacks didn’t stop him from demonstrating that he was capable, even if many of the Blacks in the region were less inclined to call on him—he called on them and eventually won them over.

As a medical practitioner, he also won the respect of Washington, and he became the leader’s personal doctor as well as providing his services to the students and faculty at Tuskegee Institute.

“He used his knowledge of vaccines to limit the scope of a smallpox epidemic in central Alabama,” the “Encyclopedia of Alabama” noted. “In the early 1880s, he was appointed to the school’s board of trustees and served until his death. In 1891, he tutored Halle Tanner Dillon, a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, who Washington had recruited to become the staff physician at Tuskegee. With Dorsette’s help, she became both the first Black woman to take the exam and the first woman to pass the test in the state.”

All of Dorsette’s success, however, did not diminish the racism and hostility he had to endure in the city, many of the racists jealous and resentful of his accomplishments. Undaunted and ever enterprising, he built a three-story office on Dexter Avenue that housed a pharmacy, with an auditorium on the top floor. There was also additional space for other doctors, dentists, pharmacists and attorneys. Eventually, the Dorsette Building, as it was called, was the office of Harvey Patterson, who edited and published the Montgomery Argus, the city’s African-American newspaper.

In 1896, as the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision sanctioning separate but equal laws gained traction and the economic depression swept across the land, Dorsette lost ownership of his building.

It was an unsettling setback, but the ever resourceful Dorsette was not discouraged. With the same resilience he had displayed after the death of his wife, Sarah Hale, he embarked on another venture. His wife was the daughter of James Hale, the richest Black man in Montgomery, and Dorsette convinced him that an infirmary was needed to treat Blacks. Hale donated the land, and with funds raised by a white woman’s club, a building was constructed and the facility was opened—the first such in the state for African-Americans.

The infirmary, which began operation in 1890, existed until 1958.

Dorsette married Lula Harper of Augusta, Ga., in 1886, with whom he had two daughters, one of whom married Vertner Tandy. He had expressed concerns about his health to Washington since the 1890s, and after a damp and cold hunting trip on Thanksgiving Day in 1897, Dorsette contracted pneumonia. He died Dec. 7. “His funeral procession was said to be the largest ever held in Montgomery for a Black citizen up to that time,” the “Encyclopedia of Alabama” noted. “The service was held at what is now Old Ship AME Zion Church, founded in 1852, the oldest Black congregation in the city.”