Orlando physician finds little comfort in
AMA's apology for racist past

By Jeff Kunerth

Orlando Sentinal Newspaper
Orlando, FL

July 11, 2008

Dr. Alfred L. Bookhardt began his career as a physician in the 1960s, when blacks were barred from practicing at Orlando hospitals or joining the American Medical Association.

A belated apology for past discrimination by the American Medical Association is a small consolation for 79-year-old Alfred L. Bookhardt, a black physician who arrived in Orlando in the days of segregation.

"He feels it's necessary for an apology, but it's way too late for him. Being denied membership affected his lifestyle, his livelihood, his status and the opportunity to grow," said his wife, Ola Bookhardt.

The association Thursday apologized on its Web site for "its past history of racial inequality toward African-American physicians, and shares its current efforts to increase the ranks of minority physicians and their participation in the AMA."

The AMA estimates that fewer than 2 percent of its members are black and that fewer than 3 percent of the nation's 1 million medical students and physicians are black. Fewer than 5 percent of Florida's doctors are black.

The AMA's words are nice to hear, Bookhardt's wife said, but they can't make up for the income lost, the privileges denied, the professional advancements thwarted. He was unavailable for an interview Thursday.

At the same time the AMA was denying Bookhardt membership, Orlando hospitals were barring black doctors from joining their staffs and separating black patients from whites. At Orange Memorial Hospital -- now Orlando Regional Medical Center -- the black ward was in the basement next to the boiler room, and women having babies were placed next to men with tuberculosis.

"They went to Orange Memorial, where they were relegated to the basement with boiler pipes to deliver their children," said Geraldine Thompson, director of the Wells'Built Museum of African American History. "Many children were delivered in the elevator."

James R. Smith opened the first maternity hospital for black women in the early 1950s so their babies could be born with dignity and in sanitary conditions, Thompson said.

Blacks who underwent surgery in Orlando hospitals were sent to private homes to recover until 1959, when the Dr. P. Phillips Hospital for Coloreds was opened. Bookhardt joined the hospital in the mid-1960s.

Bookhardt, a surgeon, shared an office with chief of staff J. Mark Cox across the street from the hospital. Today, their office is a convenience store. The hospital closed in 1968, when black doctors were allowed to practice at Orlando hospitals. Today, the old hospital is the Guardian Care nursing home on the corner of Church Street and John Young Parkway.

Bookhardt and Cox went on to join six other black doctors to create the Orange County Medical Society in 1974 as part of the National Medical Association, which was formed because of the exclusion of blacks in the AMA.

There is still animosity among some black physicians toward the AMA for its refusal to accept blacks into its membership. The National Medical Association, though calling the apology "courageous," said the AMA's history of discrimination has contributed to health disparities for blacks that continue today.

"These persistent, race-based health disparities have led to a precipitous decline in the health of African-Americans when compared to their white counterparts and the population as a whole," said Dr. Nedra Joyner, head of the board of trustees for the black doctors' association.

Thompson said the ostracism of black physicians by the medical community contributed to the skepticism that still exists in the black community toward doctors, hospitals and nursing homes.

"For a long time, people denied there was any discrimination or any inequities. Now people are coming to the realization that before we can move forward, we have to acknowledge, address and confess before we can get to the next level," Thompson said.

Ola Bookhardt said exclusion from the AMA robbed black doctors of a voice in an organization that has always been influential in health-care legislation. It also denied black doctors access to affordable health and malpractice insurance.

A practicing physician well into his 70s, Alfred Bookhardt did eventually join the AMA. Its supplemental insurance helps pay for his health care today.

On the day the AMA apologized for past mistakes, Alfred told Ola he could only ask for one more thing from the association that once rejected him because of the color of his skin: "He said recognition is good, but they should attach a check with their apologies."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Jeff Kunerth can be reached at 407-420-5392 or jkunerth@orlandosentinel.com.


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