In 1959 Dr. Releford joined the staff of Spalding County Hospital (now called Spalding Regional Hospital) as its first African-American physician. It wasn’t easy being first. He could work only on the hospital’s first floor; its upper floors were reserved for whites, his son said. He couldn’t admit patients on his own; he had to ask a white colleague to sign them in on his behalf.
Sometimes the racism was cloaked in terror: In 1962 a gang of Klansmen intent on burning a cross on Dr. Releford’s lawn turned back only because his armed neighbors made a show of force, his son said.
Over the years, racial barriers diminished. With the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, Dr. Releford started seeing white patients as well as blacks. And when he retired in 2006, many of his admiring patients found it hard to turn to other doctors.
In his quiet way Dr. Releford was a guide to younger African-American physicians. Dr. Marc Crump of Griffin said he felt his path into the community was smoothed by Releford. Charlotte King Eady, also of Griffin, said she was certain her daughter, Maya Eady of Stockbridge, became a doctor because of Releford’s encouragement.
The Rev. Cleopatrick Lacy, senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist, said Dr. Releford was a vital member of the church, both as a former trustee and a leader in its wellness ministry, conducting periodic health exams and giving talks on nutrition and appropriate exercises.
“Some years ago, I got a sample of the care he gave his regular patients,” Lacy said. “I was disturbed by questions a radiologist asked me during a diagnostic exam, and so I asked Dr. Releford for his opinion. He made an educated guess based on my symptoms and concluded my condition wasn’t nearly as serious as I thought. As it turned out, he was exactly right. Just as important, he calmed my fear.”
Dr. Releford’s first wife, Edna Price Releford, died in 1961, and his second wife, Bernadine Kennedy Releford, died two years ago. Surviving in addition to his son are two stepdaughters, Alexis Ellison of Montclair, N.J., and Olga Sanders of Los Angeles; five grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.