In the little town of Blakely my father, Walter W. Sullivan Sr., buried the black people.
It wasn’t that the white undertaker, Mr. Minter, would deny blacks his services. But in that place at that time even death was segregated. At the white funeral home African-American loved ones would have to go in around back. And black customers would take their last ride, not in Mr. Minter’s hearse but on his flatbed mule-drawn wagon. It was not a dignified ending, which was why, before my father came to town, deceased African-Americans were often buried by a black mortician in Albany, 50 miles east — a considerable inconvenience for family and friends.
My father wasn’t always a mortician. Before that, he was a life insurance salesman for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Atlanta Life was founded in the first years of the 20th century by Alonzo Herndon, a former slave who became one of the South’s first black millionaires. Atlanta Life became the economic engine for Atlanta’s black businesses, including financial institutions that provided funds for homes, other real estate and commercial start-ups. But early on in the Great Depression people stopped buying life insurance almost before they stopped buying anything else. Atlanta Life was in trouble, and my father, along with the other agents, was going broke. He needed something different.
He wasn’t particular: any job would do. So he went searching door to door, from one business to the next. Because he always believed in making a neat appearance, he wore a tie and jacket and his straw hat. He was penniless, but he looked good. After one fruitless interview (they were all fruitless) a lady stopped him on the street.
“Mister,” she said, “can you spare a dime?”
“I’m sorry he answered, “I don’t have a dime. I’m trying to find a job.”
“Well.” She looked him over. Given his appearance, she wasn’t sure she believed him. “Then you need to get out of those fancy duds and beg like the rest of us.”
With nothing available and a family to feed, my father thought about his situation. No one was buying insurance now, and he wasn’t paying claims anymore. But people were still dying. And everyone who died needed to be buried. Somehow — we’re not sure how it happened — he went into partnership in a funeral home business in Albany. Then, when he and his partner had a falling out, he went looking for a place to open his own funeral parlor, and he found Blakely, a farming town of 10,000 people or so in south Georgia’s red clay peanut and cotton country.
In 1937 my father moved us there: my mother, Lubirda; my 5-year-old brother, Walter Jr.; and me, age 4.
Living with death
I remember our first house in Blakely well. It had four rooms, which served as both our home and the funeral parlor. The living room did duty as the viewing room, where the departed were laid out for final visits. Then there was the kitchen, where we ate our meals; a bedroom, where all four of us slept; and a fourth room, where the caskets were stored and where Dad did the embalming. In that house we were never far away from death.
There was plenty of air, though. The house was built sometime in the 19th century, and the old clapboards had long ago loosened up, leaving spaces in our walls. In bed at night Walter and I would stare up at the stars through the many open knotholes in the ceiling planks.
Eventually Dad had enough money to buy a larger house around the corner and to put up a separate building next to it as his funeral parlor. From a young age Walter and I were his part-time work crew, helping in whatever way we could. Walter helped more than I because he was older and because, in his old-school way, my father was grooming his firstborn to take over the business. Walter was going to become a funeral director. I, however, had decided to be a doctor.
I had come to this decision because of Dr. Joseph Griffin, who lived and practiced in Bainbridge, 40 miles south of Blakely. Dr. Griffin was a household name among Georgia’s blacks. There were so few black doctors and scientists that everyone knew who they were. Dr. Griffin was famous, but my father knew him personally, and from the age of 5, I did too.
The reason we did is that neither Blakely nor any of its surrounding towns had a black doctor or a black hospital. If you were sick enough that you needed medical attention, you could do without and let nature take its course; you could go to one of the local root doctors, folk healers who dealt in herbs, potions and magical spells; or you could go to the white doctor, but that meant going around back and sitting in a separate waiting room, which people considered demeaning. It meant you were acquiescing to the so-called universal presumption of black inferiority.
The other option was that you could go to Dr. Griffin, who treated patients at his 25-bed hospital in Bainbridge. Having Dr. Griffin take care of you was more in keeping with your dignity. It was also something of a statement of independence, tinged with defiance. It meant there were some things, at least, that you would not put up with if you could help it.
Since so few people had transportation, my father would take them in his hearse, which doubled as an ambulance. Often I went along. In later years I used to think how these patients must have felt — sick enough to make the long trip to Dr. Griffin and picked up for that trip by the undertaker in his hearse.
At the hospital Dr. Griffin would appear in his green scrubs and surgical cap, a larger-than-life figure. The hospital smelled of ether, a pungent, mysterious aroma that made me think something magical was happening in his examination room or operating theater, which I was never allowed into. I’d see patients in the recovery room, though. Then I’d see them later, when they were well enough to be discharged and my father and I would pick them up. So from an early age I was completely taken by how a doctor could help very ill people get better. What an impression that made. I wanted to be exactly like Dr. Griffin. In our community no one was more respected or looked up to. I knew without a doubt that I was going to be a doctor.
Education is top priority
The question was, coming from Blakely, how would I ever get to do that? Not many years before this, schools for blacks didn’t exist in Blakely. Classes for black kids were held in church basements, abandoned buildings, former barracks, anyplace there was space. Even when black schools were built, resources were minimal. Books were outdated hand-me-downs from the white schools. Blakely’s black schools ran only seven months a year because so many kids were needed on the farms for planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. In addition, they only went up to the 11th grade.
For Walter Sullivan Sr. and Lubirda Sullivan, this was not an acceptable situation. My mother was a teacher, a graduate of Clark College. My father had attended Claflin College in South Carolina. Though Mama had a teaching degree, she was never able to get work in Blakely, which was one of the ways the town’s white establishment had of retaliating against my father for being an uppity, provocative troublemaker. Instead, Mama worked in different surrounding communities: Bluffton, Donaldsonville, Colquitt and Cuthbert in Randolph County, where she eventually became supervisor. She drove to these places, some of them 30 or 40 miles away, and Walter and I went with her. Wherever she was teaching, that’s where Walter and I went to school.
Life in the black community revolved around church: Sunday services, weddings, baptisms, funerals. This was when people would come together, when they would put on their finery. Black funerals were significant social events, and if someone prominent had died, an especially large congregation would gather. There my father would be, in charge of the arrangements. My brother and I would assist, passing out fans embossed with “The Sullivan Funeral Home,” helping push the casket, taking care of the flowers. And there was my mother, playing piano. It was a real family affair.
Because Walter was older and because he was supposed to take over the business, he was more my father’s right-hand man than I was. Sometimes we’d get a call in the middle of the night that someone had died and had to be picked up. I’d wake up to my father’s voice: “Walter, get up, boy. We’ve got to go get so-and-so.” Plenty of times I’d go, too. We’d get to the departed’s house with our big oblong basket. We’d lift the body onto its side, slide the basket under, lay it in, then put a sheet over it. Back at the funeral parlor daddy would prepare the body, extracting the blood and stomach juices and injecting embalming fluid. Afterward the hairdresser or barber would come in, and finally the make-up would go on.
None of this was particularly traumatic — other than the one time we were called to pick up the body of someone who had been killed in a fight. We were able to get there quickly, a little too quickly as it turned out. The man’s throat had been cut. Blood was gushing from both jugulars, but he was still alive and still conscious. When he saw my father, he managed to gasp, “Walter, you don’t have to bring me to the hospital. Just take me straight to the funeral home.”
Neither Walter nor I ever felt strange or fearful being around dead people. We were used to it. Death was simply another part of life.
Taking a stand
Daddy was known by black people throughout the county because of his work. But he was also known for the activism, or agitation, he injected into Blakely’s racial picture. South Georgia was the heart of Jim Crow country, an extremely harsh place, second only to Mississippi in the number of lynchings, which were still happening when I was growing up. People alive now remember times when black men were arrested, taken to jail, and never seen again.
We came to live in Blakely in 1937, only one standard lifetime removed from slavery. Attitudes hadn’t changed much either. Blacks had no part in government, in law enforcement, or in any civil institution. Ku Klux Klansmen occasionally walked down the street in their white sheets and conical hats with their faces uncovered so everyone would know who they were.
This was the atmosphere that greeted my father when we arrived in Blakely.
I don’t know what my father’s activities might have been before Blakely, but soon after he got there he began aggravating the white community. The first thing he did was establish an NAACP chapter. Then my father inaugurated an annual Emancipation Day parade on Jan. 1, with bands, floats and church services, kicked off by a march that started from our funeral parlor.
This was, among other things, my father’s way of announcing loud and clear to everyone concerned: “This place is ours as well as yours!” If that wasn’t enough, he then started actually getting people registered to vote, standing up to the authorities and challenging their administration of the absurd so-called tests that were imposed on blacks trying to register.
“Uppity” didn’t even begin to describe the impression my father must have made. Maybe the best illustration of Dad’s true nature was what happened the day they shot my dog, Spot. The Blakely police chief, Mr. Dallas, enjoyed shooting dogs with his BB gun. It was a kind of hobby of his. He thought it was hilarious.
Spot was a white mutt about the size of a boxer, with big brown spots, a wonderful playmate and protector. I loved that dog. We had a license for him, too. One day I was sitting on our front lawn with him when Dallas came riding along slowly in his cruiser. Next thing I knew, he had stopped, poked the barrel of his gun out the window, and shot Spot, who howled and took off. I was about 13 at the time. When this happened, I ran down to the street, yelling, “Why did you shoot my dog? Why did you shoot my dog?” Dallas got out of the car, pointed his gun at me, and said, “Why? You want me to shoot you too?”
I completely lost my mind. I was absolutely insane with rage. I wanted to kill him. “You just stay here!” I yelled, and I ran back into the house, headed toward my parent’s bedroom where I knew my father kept his pistol. I was going to grab it, run outside, and shoot Dallas.
I was groping around for the gun when my mother burst in. When she saw what I was looking for, she grabbed me and started yelling for help. In another moment someone else had me in a bear hug, the iceman, who had been in the process of delivering ice to our funeral parlor next door. A few seconds later he was joined by a neighbor from across the street. It took them all a while to calm me down, or at least to stop me from struggling.
Not long after that my father and Walter arrived. It took some time for my father to sort out what had happened, but then he got a stone cold expression on his face and told Walter to come with him; he had something to do.
Here’s Walter telling what happened next:
We got in the car. I said, “Where are we going?” Daddy said, “We’re going to the jail.” Inside, the chief was in the back, talking to his deputies. My father stopped a quarter way into the room and hollered, “Dallas!” so loud and with such authority that everybody was startled for a moment. “Dallas! Come up here! I need to see you!”
This was unthinkable, a black man talking to a white man this way. He came up, and when he did my father pulled his gun out of his belt and stuck it right in the middle of Dallas’s forehead. He said, “I understand you had a few problems at my house today. Is that correct?” Dallas was so shocked and so nervous, with that gun between his eyes, he couldn’t get a word out.
My father said, “Let me tell you one thing. If you have any problems with my boys or my wife, you don’t do or say a thing to them, you come and see me. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“OK. I hope you do. Because the next time I’m going to blow your brains out!”
He stuck the gun back in his belt and walked out. I was like a bowl of Jell-O.
The next Saturday I was down by Courthouse Square getting something I had been sent for. I passed by Dallas and another white fellow. And I heard the other man say, “Who’s that boy?” Dallas said, “Don’t you know? That’s that crazy (expletive) Sullivan’s boy.” You see, whenever someone had trouble with a black person that person was supposed to be “crazy.” It was obvious he didn’t have good sense.
Break from tradition
In 1944 Walter and I moved to Atlanta, but we didn’t go alone. Our mother came with us; she had decided to enroll at Atlanta University for a master’s degree in education. When Mama finished her degree and left Atlanta, Walter and I stayed. She had made arrangements for us to board with Mrs. Maude Brown, a motherly woman who lived right across the street from Booker T. Washington High School, where we were going to enroll.
In front of Booker T. Washington High was a statue of Washington himself, lifting the veil of ignorance from a slave rising from his knees. The school had been founded in 1924, the city’s first secondary school for blacks. The statue was dramatic, but it was a faithful representation of what happened within the school’s doors. The teachers there taught the love of learning for its own sake, let alone that it would prepare us to be more successful and more competitive as we moved on.
After high school there was no question, of course, that I was going to college. But there was a question about where. I had done well. I had been elected president of my class, and at graduation I was salutatorian. At Washington High, many of the boys were going to Morehouse College and most of the girls were going to Spelman, Morehouse’s sister school. I was eager to go to Morehouse myself. My best friends had applied there, and Morehouse’s reputation put it at the top of the South’s traditionally black colleges. Many of my teachers and counselors talked about what a great school it was. But there was a problem.
The problem was that Morehouse had been founded back in 1867, under the sponsorship of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. The school’s first home had been in the Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta before it moved to Atlanta. By the mid-20th century it no longer had a formal Baptist affiliation, but the Baptist tradition was still strong there. Benjamin Mays, Morehouse’s famous president, was, among other things, an ordained Baptist minister.
We, on the other hand, were Methodists, from a long line of Methodists. Grandfather Priester was an assistant Methodist minister, my mother a Methodist church pianist, my father a Methodist steward. And Morehouse was just one of the five schools that made up Atlanta’s consortium of black institutions of higher learning, another of which was Clark College. Also a good school, Clark had been founded by Methodists. Mama had done her undergraduate work at Clark, and Walter had enrolled there the year before.
My parents just naturally felt that Clark was my destination, so when I told them at dinner one night that I wanted Morehouse, it caused a bit of a shock.
“Morehouse?” my father said. “Why that’s a Baptist school!”
“Dad,” I said, “it was started by Baptists, but they severed their ties a long time ago.”
“But we’ve always been a Methodist family!”
“Dad, I’m not going to church. I’m going to college.”
“Wait a minute” — this was from my mother. “Walter, he wants to go to college. Morehouse is an excellent school. Why not?”
That was how in September 1950 I found myself among the 200 freshmen in Morehouse’s new entering class.
This excerpt from “Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine” by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, with David Chanoff, is published courtesy of The University of Georgia Press.
About the story
Since boyhood, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan knew he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. For an African-American child living in south Georgia during the Depression, it was an ambitious aspiration. But Sullivan, 81, not only went on to practice medicine, he was the founding dean and first president of Morehouse School of Medicine and served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during President George H.W. Bush’s administration. In his new memoir, “Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine” (The University of Georgia Press), written with David Chanoff, Sullivan tells the story of his career and illustrates how education and a drive to succeed can make big dreams come true. The AJC obtained exclusive rights from the University of Georgia Press to excerpt the first chapter about Sullivan’s childhood.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor