A Conversation On Doctors in Rural Illinois In the 1940s

Dec 27, 2019

Harold Bardo grew up in Sparta, Illinois. He later moved to Carbondale working at SIU in several different roles. In March, StoryCorps came to Carbondale to speak with Southern Illinoisans about their lives.

Harold and his wife Lana, talked about growing up in rural Illinois as African-Americans in a time when segregation still ruled much of America.

Read the transcript:

HAROLD: In our neighborhood. There were not many people that had automobiles, but every once in a while on the street, you would see this black Ford sedan parked outside someone's home to remember seeing that in the neighborhood.

LANA: Not really, and not to pay a lot of attention to it. I had older people in my house when I was very young, they were great. grandparents, etc. And they were ill. So the doctor came to our house, one of them was blind, and the other one had kidney problems. And I never noticed there being a difference except for when they were at my house.

HAROLD: So the way we knew that someone was sick in the neighborhood, since I'm a bit older than you are, was to see this black Ford sedan outside people's homes and we knew that was Dr. Denning’s car. So we knew that someone in the house had to be sick and almost gravely sick because at that time, I don't recall people going to see a physician or a doctor, unless they were really, really sick. We grew up in a small town of Sparta, Illinois, there were only about 3,200 people that live there. So we had three doctors for about a population and maybe the sign outside Sparta used to say 3,200 people of course, that was 1939, 1940. And so that was my experience with a doctor. I don't ever recall having gone to see a doctor, except one time and I went to see Dr. Fullerton to get a shot, because I had a cold and the coach took me. The basketball coach took me to see the doctor because he thought this shot might help me so that I would be able to play basketball. What do you recall about going to see doctors?

LANA: I saw doctor regularly. My grandfather owned a local juke joint or whatever, and he was very much into seeing to that my health was good. So I saw a dentist once a year. I doctor once a year. If I got sick, sick the doctor came to the house, but like I said he came regularly anyway up until the time that those two older people in the family died. And so if there was a problem that I was having, then he'd take care of that too. I don't remember going to the doctor outside of the home, except once in the middle of the night, I got sick and they thought I had appendicitis. And they took me to the emergency room at the hospital. But that's the only time I remember actually going out to see a doctor.

HAROLD: I never had a person of color as a physician until years later in my life when we moved back here to Carbondale in 1900 and 68. So my first African-American physician was an ophthalmologist, Dr. Jackson. When was your first experience with an African-American physician?

LANA: Well, part of my family is from Birmingham, Alabama. Back in the ‘60s, it was segregated to the point -- which I thought was great. Looking back, I guess it wasn't. But when I was a kid, I thought it was great. And I got something, some kind of bug or something. And I went to see a black doctor when I was there, but that's the only ones you could see. And you didn't have a choice at that. You saw a black doctor, or you didn't see anyone.

HAROLD: Did you feel you said you went to see a doctor in Sparta growing up. How did you feel about that encounter with that physician? Did you feel any different from seeing a person of color or not? Or do you recall?

LANA: I don't recall that there was any difference. These, in Sparta when we grew up, here was no quote unquote, totally black neighborhood or totally white. Well, there were some totally white neighborhoods, but they were out and away from the places that I frequented anyway. And so I know it just it never entered my mind, as a kid.

This story was produced by Steph Whiteside with interviews recorded by StoryCorps. a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. Find out more about storycorps@storycorps.org.