The Robert Russa Moton Museum, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Centra Southside Community Hospital joined forces to celebrate Black History Month and Doctor’s Day with a presentation and book signing by Linda Kenney Miller, author of “Beacon on the Hill.”
“Beacon on the Hill” is the story of Miller’s grandfather, Dr. John A. Kenney, who was able to overcome poverty and illiteracy as the son of ex-slaves to become the personal physician to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute.
“How did he take nothing and become one of the most important unsung heroes of the 20th Century?” Miller asked beginning her presentation at Moton on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010.
The story and Kenney’s motivation, she said, is one that should inspire us all.
Dr. Gwen Eddleman said the hospital was proud to bring Miller to speak for Doctor’s Day. “We wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to introduce this book and this author to the community,” she said.
Using journals and private papers dating back to 1897, Miller wrote a book that, as noted on the book’s website, “gives us a glimpse into the mindset of Black doctors who courageously took a stand for what they believed in… no matter what the cost. This generation of medical men trusted that their valiant efforts would inspire future generations to carry the torch; and their sacrifices must never be forgotten.”
Once Miller started going through her grandfather’s papers she found letters from other prominent African American physicians like Charles Drew, known for his research in the field of blood transfusions’ and Daniel Williams, who performed the first open heart surgery in 1893. Miller said she was impressed by their quality and scholarship and by how “they considered themselves leaders of the race.”
In 2009 the book won a number of book awards for fiction, including the National Indie Excellence Award and the Independent Book Publishers Association and USA Book News. While much of the book is based on history and events, “its substance is infused with creative storytelling” and some names and dates have been changed in order to protect the anonymity of descendants living in this century.
Kenney joined the National Medical Association in 1903 and was long active in the organization. Made up of African American doctors, the group adopted a mission of sharing information and doing community outreach.
Denied the right to practice at the same hospital in New Jersey as his white counterparts and with black patients segregated, Kenney got a loan and founded Kenny Memorial Hospital that would treat thousands of African Americans during the Depression, Miller said.
The site is now a national historic site and the home to New Salem Baptist Church.
In other communities, other African American doctors undertook similar steps to help their community.
“You read this book you see that John Kenney was not one of a kind — he was one of many who were inspirational,” Miller said.
Consequently, Miller encouraged members of the audience to write down and pass down their family histories so that we can remember the greatness of our community and what was done to survive.
“If you don’t know these things then you can’t benefit from them,” she said.
And, she encouraged the audience to take these lessons as motivation. “If we all did that what a beautiful day it would be,” she said. “Now you have your purpose.”
The Robert Russa Moton Museum is located at 900 Griffin Boulevard, Farmville, Virginia. It is the site of the April 23, 1951 student walkout in protest of inferior educational facilities led by 16-year-old sophomore Barbara Johns. The Moton strike launched Prince Edward County’s 13-year struggle for Civil Rights in Education and resulted in the filing of Davis v. Prince Edward, which called for an end to racial segregation in public education. Davis was decided, along with four other cases, in the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision.
The museum is establishing a permanent exhibit that will trace Prince Edward County’s 13-year struggle to establish an integrated school system. The exhibition will be in place by April 23, 2011, the 60th anniversary of the student protest. It will offer the only place in the Commonwealth where visitors can come to understand the processes by which citizens and their national, state and local governments resolved the policy issues of segregation in public education. For more information visit the museum’s web site at https://motonmuseum.org.