Dr. M. Delmar Edwards: Columbus' First African American Surgeon
This history excerpt is from a variety of sources, including: 100 People to Remember by Richard Hyatt for the Ledger-Enquirer, the obituary of Dr. M. Delmar Edwards, I Swear By Apollo: A Black Surgeon in the Deep South by Dr. S.A. Roddenbery, and Pioneer Surgeon in Columbus, Dr. Delmar Edwards, Dies by Lily Gordon for the Ledger-Enquirer.
“With dignity, optimism, and faith in his fellow man, Dr. M. Delmar Edwards plowed a path through the racial inequities of the medical, civic, and business circles of Georgia as effortlessly as water carves a canyon through rock. His tools were not the chisel of confrontation, nor the sickle of denunciation, but faith in the decency of his fellow man. With integrity, patience, intelligence, good cheer, and optimism, he carved a path through the harshness of racial inequity, a path he has made far easier for many others to follow.”
From the obituary of Dr. M. Delmar Edwards.
Maurice Delmar Edwards was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1926, the younger of two children. His father, Jesse Edwards, had been born and raised in Paris, Texas. He traveled to Arkansas in search of employment. He was a self-taught, self-made man with only a fourth-grade education, but who was an avid reader. His love of learning was one of his special gifts he gave to his son, Delmar, who realized at an early age that work is good, necessary, and honorable.
Delmar was also given the eternal optimism of his mother, Helen. She imbued him with the sense that he could achieve anything he set his mind to, and that obstacles only existed to help him grow stronger each day. Delmar took the lessons of hard work, optimism and faith with him to college, the military, medical school and as a pioneer in medicine. He attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, and two years later was inducted into the Navy.
As a young seaman, Delmar developed an acute respiratory infection that landed him in the hospital. The illness turned out to be prophetic. A Navy surgeon took an interest in Delmar and introduced him to surgery and surgical techniques. In no time, the young seaman was assisting in the operating room and serving as a medical corpsman. The Navy experience sparked a passion for medicine that remained with Dr. Edwards for the rest of his life, a passion he would pass on to his children. Once out of the Navy, he returned to Wilberforce University (now Central State College) and later earned a degree from Morehouse College. In 1952, he became the first African American male accepted at the University of Arkansas Medical School. Delmar had also been accepted at Howard, but he elected to attend Arkansas to be closer to his aging parents and because all of his schooling up until this point had been in African American institutions. In 1957, he became the fifth African American student to graduate from Arkansas Medical School. He completed his residency in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he met Betty Margaret Redding, his wife of 49 years. He went into family practice in Fort Smith, but there were not a lot of places that would take an African American student for surgical training. He was accepted at the Tuskegee Veterans' Administration Hospital. This was where he met Dr. Andy Roddenbery (a former UGA quarterback) and Dr. Abe Conger (son of a Muscogee Superior Court Judge). Below is a photo of the VA Hospital staff in 1953 - Dr. Roddenbery is third row, second from right; and Dr. Conger is fourth row, second from left.
In 1964, Dr. Delmar Edwards completed his three year residency at Tuskegee, made arrangements with Roddenbery and Conger for his preceptorship with them, and moved his family to Columbus. When Roddenbery and Conger began their practices in Columbus in 1950, there were only seven African American physicians in Columbus and their opportunities were limited. Even 14 years later, when Delmar arrived, African American patients were placed in separate wings of both the Medical Center and St. Francis. The medical environment was also filled with a noticeable skepticism and at times, a hostile atmosphere toward Dr. Edwards. In 1966, the Medical Center cafeteria, as all the rest of the hospital, was segregated. A wall divided the room and there were separate serving lines for food. Following protests from the NAACP and other groups, both within and outside the hospital, the administrator was under pressure to make changes but seemed in no hurry to do so. Dr. Edwards led the way. As a result of his efforts, the wall was cut down. This was just one of several ways Dr. Edwards would change the way African American physicians and patients were treated in this community. Dr. Edwards first office was located on the corner of 7th Avenue and 8th Street over Dr. E.B. Coffee's drugstore. George W. Ford, a prominent African American funeral home owner, made it possible. His later office would only be three blocks away from his first, on the NE corner of Veterans Parkway and 8th Street.
Dr. Edwards made an indelible mark on the city's medical, civic, and business communities, and opened doors for scores of African American doctors. The path wasn't easy. But he faced the racial hostilities of his day with the attributes of hard work and optimism instilled in him by his parents. "He came at a time when African American physicians were not welcome," said Dr. Sylvester McRae. And he scaled the walls of racial rejection and skepticism to lead the General Surgery Section at the Medical Center in Columbus and he served as Chairman of the Department of Surgery. "He was known as the Godfather of African American physicians because he recruited so many African American doctors to Columbus," said Dr. McRae. "When Dr. Edwards recruited me in 1985, there were probably less than 10 African American physicians. Today there are 60-75. Dr. Delmar Edwards was instrumental in recruiting all of those physicians. He was a father figure who extended himself and his resources to help others," he said. Dr. Edwards' influence extended beyond Columbus, where he helped lead dozens of civic associations and served on three corporate boards.
Dr. Edwards was also a founding trustee of the Morehouse School of Medicine, and a scholarship program named in his honor has helped dozens of MSM students become doctors. Dr. Edwards was the first African American member of the Columbus Rotary Club, a long-serving member of Columbus State University Foundation Board, and a member of the Board of Directors of AFLAC, Inc. He served as president of the Georgia State Medical Association and was the founder and president emeritus of the Columbus-Fort Benning Medical Association.
He was the first African American to serve on the Columbus Housing Authority and the second to serve on the Muscogee County School Board. He was a founding member of the Columbus Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Gamma Psi Boule. He was also active in local and state politics and lent early encouragement and support to many leaders including former Superior Court Judge Albert Thompson, former Mayor J. R. Allen, former Mayor Pro-Tem A. J. Mc Clung, State Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), and U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop.
Because of Delmar Edwards, the population of African American physicians in Columbus blossomed. He became a mentor to many and a driving force behind their decisions to stay and practice within the community. Despite the road blocks and hardships Delmar Edwards faced during his years as a practicing surgeon in Columbus, his son, Christopher Edwards, said he never harbored hate towards anyone in the community. On the contrary, he encouraged and fostered relationships with white educators, as well as business and civic leaders. “His character, integrity and intelligence are what I admired most,” Christopher Edwards said. “He treated people with respect and honor no matter their perceived station in life and he was the most ethical person I had known or have since met. And finally, I realized he was not just our “Dad,” but had become a father to an entire community.” Dr. Edwards died on September 11, 2009 at the age of 83.
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Historic Columbus is celebrating Black History Month by sharing some of our community's history through the stories of individuals, places, and events in our town. There is so much history that needs to be shared, and what you will see this coming month is just the beginning. More stories will continue to be shared each week throughout the year. Our community and our people have incredible stories, and Historic Columbus certainly doesn't know everything. We hope you will help us learn the rest of the story...your story, your family's story. Please consider sharing these stories with HCF to help create an oral history collection. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't worry, we will keep asking for your stories each month!
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