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South Carolina’s first black surgeon earns recognition

July 1, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Dr. Burnett Gallman remembers getting treated by the first black surgeon in South Carolina when he was around 20.

It was either 1968 or 69 and the now-gastroenterologist had received a second degree burn on his hand while working at a McDonald’s. This led him to the medical office of Dr. Cryril O. Spann in Columbia.

Spann treated the wound so well that there isn’t even an indication of a burn, Gallman said. But in the era before Spann, getting a wound treated often was a challenge for African Americans.

“There was a time, if someone black got sick, they had nowhere to go,” said Gallman, who today works in the Columbia VA Health Care System.

Dr. Spann spent more than five years in the 1960s and ’70s as the only trained black surgeon in South Carolina. Now, his little-known legacy has garnered more attention since his former medical office recently was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Catherine Fleming Bruce, a researcher who highlights South Carolina’s black history, has been instrumental in getting Spann’s office that recognition.

“When I first came across it, it was a beauty shop,” she said. “I really didn’t know that much about the history myself.”

The building is located two doors down from the old Good Samaritan-Waverly Hospital, a facility that served the black residents of Columbia until 1973. Spann served as chief of staff there.

Spann’s private-practice office in Columbia was different from the segregated facilities blacks usually had to go to, according to Bruce. It was an office created specifically for the black community in Columbia, one of the first. Other offices of black doctors usually were located in a home or a repurposed building.

By moving into a building like that, Spann set the bar higher for black doctors, Bruce said.

“You can find significant history in many places,” she said. “From what I was able to tell, he was an excellent surgeon.”

—The medicine

When Gallman went to Spann for the burn on his hand, the doctor seemed very stern and intimidating — “the kind of man you thought twice before you said anything off the wall to,” Gallman said, recalling his own lack of maturity.

But it was evident that Spann was very professional, and one of the greatest physicians in Columbia, “if not all of South Carolina,” he said.

Spann was a native of Chester, a town that sits between Columbia and Charlotte. After graduating from Benedict College in 1938, he joined the Army during World War II.

He earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in 1950. By the late 1950s, he was listed as a surgeon and a physician with Good Samaritan.

By 1963, he had built his own office. But his medical practice didn’t begin and end in Columbia.

Spann saw a statewide need for his skills, Bruce said. So he would travel as far as Charleston to provide aid.

“This is 1960 we’re talking about,” she said. “It took a lot of bravery and endurance to do what he did.”

The 1960s was marked by racial tension, civil rights activism and violence, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the attack on protesters in Selma, Ala., known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“You see someone who was dedicated to his craft,” said Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina. “You also see someone who was dedicated to the community.”

Spann would travel to conferences to further educate himself and others, Bruce and Donaldson said.

“He was a father, he was a husband,” Donaldson added. “I think he was an individual who was more than a medical doctor.”

—Beyond the medicine

In 1961, a Benedict College student protester named Lennie Glover was stabbed by a white man while on his way to a sit-in protest. He and other student activists at the time had been protesting to push for the desegregation of local businesses.

At Good Samaritan-Waverly Hospital, Spann was the physician that saved his life.

But Spann’s help didn’t end with medical expertise. He also was a vocal member of the NAACP, rare for a professional man at the time, Donaldson said.

“He was one of those physicians that was a part of the elite of South Carolina,” he said.

When students were arrested for protests, Spann would help bail them out of jail. In the landmark 1963 case of Edwards v. South Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court found that states could not criminalize a peaceful protest.

In a photo commemorating the victory of the students, Spann appears with other adult supporters.

“Dr. Spann was never in the headlines for things, but he was always behind the scenes,” Donaldson said.

Following his death in 1979, many black physicians used his office, including Gerald Wilson, Albert Reid, Rodney Reid, Everette Dargan and Burnett Gallman.

“I felt a profound sense of pride to be able to walk in those foot steps,” Gallman said.

A celebration of Spann and his legacy is planned for October, Bruce said. Potential supporters can contact Bruce at tnovsacfb@gmail.com or 803-587-9712 for more information.

She said they are hoping to build more awareness about him, and even seeking to restore the Good Samaritan-Waverly Hospital for training purposes.

“He really wanted to provide the best that could be provided to the black people in this community,” Bruce said. “This is a civil right’s space.”

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Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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