Charles Releford Sr., 89: Became a physician through persistence

Charles Releford watched a wasting illness wear down the woman who raised him — his maternal grandmother, Nicy Cain — and he wondered whether her heart ailment could have been treated and her life prolonged. That’s when he decided to become a doctor.

It was a daunting ambition. He went on to earn a biology degree at Morehouse College in 1949, but his application to attend Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., was turned down. Being poor and black and living in the South of the mid-20th century, Releford had few other options, said his son, Charles Releford Jr. of Griffin.

He took a step in the right direction, applying for and winning acceptance into Meharry’s medical technology program. In 1952 he was hired as the first African-American medical technologist at Hughes Spalding Hospital in downtown Atlanta, which is now a division of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta system.

The experience Releford gained at Hughes Spalding, plus his persistence, finally won him admission into Meharry Medical School, and in 1959 he realized his goal of returning to his hometown of Griffin as a bona fide physician who would devote his entire 45-year career as a doctor to treating the sick of Spalding County.

Charles Cain Releford Sr., 89, of Griffin died Tuesday of complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the Brightmoor Nursing Center. His funeral is 11 a.m. Monday at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Griffin. Gregory B. Levett & Sons Funeral Homes’ South DeKalb Chapel is in charge of arrangements.

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.