Dr. C Allen Alexander
Physician, Historian and Author
Born in 1900, Cornelius Allen Alexander became one of Kalamazoo’s most beloved citizens by the time he passed away at his Richland home in 1995. Known primarily as Kalamazoo’s first black surgeon, Alexander’s intellectual pursuits, married to a love of people, drove his calling to better understand and improve the human condition. A year before his death, Western Michigan University awarded him an honorary doctorate for public service, a recognition of the doctor’s legacy of contributing to the health and well being of the community. Whether it was his career focus as a practicing physician, as a discreet philanthropist, or later as an enthusiastic chronicler of Kalamazoo’s African American community, Dr. Alexander’s life and varied endeavors are indelibly woven into the history of Kalamazoo.
“An extraordinary personality, who is a physician, surgeon, community leader, oral historian, sportsman, raconteur, and author.”–Paul L. Maier’s foreword to Alexander’s autobiography
The Early Years
Born to a life of underprivileged poverty in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1900, Alexander first envisioned his life as a doctor when at the age of 14, an embedded fishhook in his hand brought him to a local hospital. After watching the doctor carefully remove the bait, Cornelius became enamored with the cool, compassionate demeanor of the doctors and their white coats. While growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, his supportive mother also served as inspiration, after she became trained as a nurse while working as a maid in the local hospital’s “colored ward”.
Despite his academic success, Alexander faced a variety of hurdles as one of only two black medical school students navigating the unequal playing field. He later lamented that he had to “do more than white students in order to get an acceptable grade.” Throughout his days as a student, Alexander took odd jobs to help finance his education, including a stint as a dining car waiter on the Union Pacific railroad. He also details in his autobiography, that as a student struggling to pay for text books, he worked as a waiter at Hubbard’s Roadhouse, a Skokie club that was frequented by Chicago gangsters, including legendary mob boss, Al Capone. Despite these trying years of hardship, Alexander persevered, pressing through the structural inequities of 1920’s Jim Crow life, to earn his B.S. degree from Fisk University and his medical degree from Rush Medical School-University of Chicago (1929). Alexander’s training included making the rounds in some of Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods, often delivering babies in dreadful conditions. It’s likely that such experiences deepened his bedside manner and contributed to a lifelong passion for using his medical skills and knowledge to help the underprivileged.
Arrival in Kalamazoo
In 1931, Alexander arrived in Kalamazoo with his wife Janie and two children (Burruss and Jane) to begin an almost half-century career as a surgeon and general practitioner. Alexander had traveled from Chicago to Saginaw to take over a medical practice for a friend of his, but when he arrived, he discovered that the doctor’s office had mistakenly been cleaned out of furniture and equipment. After consulting with a fraternity brother in the Detroit area about possible cities to put down roots in, his friend suggested he check out Kalamazoo. Alexander traveled to Kalamazoo to meet up with Jesse Graine and Reverend Emery Barnes, the latter of whom was the director of the Douglass Community Center. He was charmed by the small size and gentle pace of Kalamazoo, but what may have motivated him most in choosing Kalamazoo, was the time he spent at a cottage with Graine’s family on Sherman Lake, in Ross Township. After several days of delighting in Mrs. Graine’s fried chicken, and time spent fishing at the lake, Alexander was smitten with Kalamazoo. Alexander was so fond of the area, that he later resided in nearby Richland.
Upon arriving in Kalamazoo, his first office was located in a two-story home at 212 E. Frank Street, a stone’s throw away from the Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church. In 1933, he moved into the second floor of a building next door to the Van Avery Drugstore at 712 N. Burdick Street. He moved into his third and final office building in 1950, a single-story, brick building at 118 W. North Street. This last office building, was donated to the Kalamazoo Northside Non-Profit Housing Corporation in 1997.
Alexander was regarded as a cordial and inviting doctor to any patient, regardless of class or ethnic background, who required his services. In 1931, the Northside Neighborhood was culturally mixed, which gave Alexander the opportunity to serve a diverse cross-section of working class residents. He later recalled in an interview in 1987, “there were many blacks, Greeks, Italians and Polish. Over on Mill Street, there were Hungarians, Croatians and Mexicans.” These intimate connections within the community led to Alexander becoming close enough with his patients and their family members, to become involved in their personal lives, often times resulting in an invitation to parties, weddings, christenings, anniversaries, and funerals.
In an interview with the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1990, he described his relationship with his colleagues, saying, “I can say with pleasure that my reception by the other physicians and both hospitals could not have been warmer.” He worked for both Borgess and Bronson Methodist hospitals over the years, developing long friendships with both doctors and nurses. In a remembrance from the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1995, Ann M. Johnson, recalled,
“I was fortunate enough to experience what a truly great man he was. I first met Dr. Alexander when I was a student nurse at Borgess Medical Center. It was a very busy day on a surgical floor. I was assigned to one of his patients, and when he arrived for hospital rounds, he asked me to do an IV procedure. I was so “green” as a student nurse, it was a wonder I wasn’t sprouting green grass. I had to tell him that I did not know how to do it. This was not an easy thing to do; for when a doctor sees any type of nurse or student, somehow they assume that we have already been through eight years of medical school and know how to do everything. Dr. Alexander looked at me and said in a soft voice, “That’s good dear, I will be able to teach you.” And he did.”
In the 1930’s, Alexander served as the first black Vice President of the Kalamazoo Academy of Medicine, one of many memberships he would hold throughout his life. In 1955, he was elected a fellow of the prestigious International College of Surgery. In 1975, he traveled to Honduras and the Dominican Republic as a medical missionary for the Christian Medical Society. It was in 1977, when Dr. Alexander officially retired from fulltime practice so that he could dedicate more time to a social life that included traveling with his wife Roberta, playing golf, fishing, hunting, sculpting, learning Spanish, constructing decorative indoor/outdoor fountains, and drumming in a senior citizen band called “Playalongs”. At the time of his death, his obituary detailed the many organizations that he was associated with, including the Helen Coover Senior Orchestra, American Medical Association, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo Torch Club, and the Gull Lake Area Community Church.
“A Day in the Life of George Washington Carver”
In 1937, Alexander’s prominence would extend beyond his role as a Kalamazoo doctor, when he traveled to Tuskegee Institute to shoot a film of the renowned inventor and botanist, Dr. George Washington Carver, a shy and aloof man who rarely consented to be photographed. By 1937, as Carver’s health worsened, “President Pattison and the trustees of the Institute were alarmed that no photographic record had ever been made of Dr. Carver himself.” A friend of Alexander’s, Dr. John Chenault, who was chief of orthopedics at the John Andrews Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee, invited Alexander to the campus to shoot footage of the legendary scientist.
“I, of course, was delighted by this request: such a famous man, such a rare privilege. In November, 1937, near Thanksgiving week, I arrived on campus with my little hand-held Kodak, flood lamps, a tripod, and fifty-foot rolls of color movie film, which was quite new in the industry at that time. I was introduced to the great man, who, quietly but courteously, permitted me to direct him in the various poses that I wished to photograph. Since he was very weak and feeble, I spread the photo sessions over several days.”–from Alexander’s autobiography (p.182)
Upon his return to Kalamazoo, Alexander set aside the film in a vault at the First National Bank. He figured that he would show the film to an audience at some point in the near future, but as time went by, the project languished, and the film remained unseen. It wasn’t until 1981, at the urging of his wife and daughter, that Alexander unearthed and treated the archival film footage, donating VHS copies to the George Washington Carver Memorial and the Tuskegee Institute. In 2019, the film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress under the title: “George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute”.
Oral History Project
A distinguished community leader, Dr. Cornelius Allen Alexander, began an ambitious oral history project in 1987. Partnering with both The Kalamazoo Public Library and Western Michigan University’s Department of History, Alexander personally taped more than 150 hours of interviews with a select cross section of representatives from a wide variety of ethnic groups he had encountered in his practice over a sixty year period, as well as colleagues in the medical profession. The result is a brimming treasury of 117 cassette tapes, replete with colorful evidence of the changes in society and culture that swept through western Michigan in the most crucial years of the twentieth century. Encouraged by former director of the Kalamazoo Public Library, Dr. Mark Crum, Alexander set out over the course of several years to render through intimate conversations and personal storytelling, both the historically momentous and the everyday changes to those who have called the Kalamazoo area home. From these interviews came a three volume set of books published in the late 1990’s (see: Sources).
“Oral history is taken directly from the participant who has made or experienced it–the eyewitness. It is therefore alive: the episode has its own particular personality, that of the participant. The story has feelings and emotions. One can visualize it, feel it, and empathize with the participant, the storyteller. The account lives and breathes, laughs and cries. No historian is interposed between the active character in the story and the listener. Thus, it has no quality of hearsay. Instead, witness speaks all of his or her own words and phrases while communicating his own moods and emotions. No one else can tell a person’s story better than the person himself.”–from Alexander’s autobiography (p.14-15)
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, March 2022