One of my best literary friends is crime investigator author Dan
Moldea. Often interviewed on national television, Moldea is the author
of The Hoffa Wars. The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy, and Evidence
Dismissed: The Inside Story of the Police Investigation of O.J.
Simpson. When examining a mysterious case in which a well known person
has died, Moldea told me his first objective is to get to the basic
facts – review the public record, examine the physical evidence, and
talk to all possible sources and witnesses.
This is something historian Spencie Love sets out to do in One
Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew, which is a
fascinating account of the 1950 tragic automobile accident which
claimed the life of the outstanding medical surgeon and Black leader.
In 1950, Charles Drew was the chairman of Howard University’s
Medical School Surgery Department and chief surgeon at Freedmen’s
Hospital (now Howard University Hospital). During World War II, he was
responsible for pioneering scientific research in blood plasma and
blood banking. He was also outspoken about segregated medical practices
in the United States especially policies that initially excluded Black
blood from American Red Cross blood banks, and later segregated Black
and White blood.
As a result of his achievements in the medical field. Drew’s death –
which many people erroneously believe was caused by denial of medical
services – encouraged various beliefs which upheld the painful reminder
of segregation within the Black community. Rumors circulated following
the Drew accident reflecting the state of race relations in the United
States at the time and the perceived hostility against Black people in
One Blood is not a biography of Charles Drew. Instead, it is an
examination of how rumors and the opinions of people help determine
Love’s approach to her material is based on new research methods.
She aims to show how “there are different kinds of historical truth,”
and that the history people pass on orally – a group’s legends – is an
important clue not only to how they feel and think about their past,
but also to the very substance of that past. History, according to
Love, is derived from people’s memories.
How and why a Charles Drew legend developed is a major part of
Love’s research. Her book encourages one to reread Patricia A. Turner’s
I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which examines how rumors circulate
within African American culture. I am certain that if I was on the
Howard campus back in 1950 and learned about the tragic death of Drew,
I would have been shocked and wondering if the news reports were
accurate. I probably would have held on to my own beliefs, regardless
of the facts, and would have passed on a few rumors myself. In time,
however, rumors help shape the legends we believe.
According to the author, the legends surrounding Charles Drew can be
linked to the portrayal of Drew as a bleeding Christ figure, a
redeemer. Drew sheds his blood for his fellow man.
Love provides us with background into the various myths and
superstitions which people have about blood. It is often seen as being
symbolic of life as well as being the substance which links families
and nations together. She examines these factors in order to strengthen
the case for why Drew became a mythic personality.
The Drew legend became part of mainstream American history and
popular culture during the 1960s. As the civil rights movement
attempted to correct historical wrongs and press for equality for
Blacks, the life and death of Charles Drew was seen as a reason for
combating segregation. Civil rights leader Whitney Young played a key
role in helping to circulate the rumor about Drew’s death with his book
To Be Equal. The section of that book which was purported to be an
account of Drew’s death was also published in Young’s October 1964
column in the Amsterdam News.
Drew’s death became as well-known among African Americans as the
1937 death of Bessie Smith who, it was rumored, was also refused
treatment at a White hospital. In Smith’s case, the tragedy took place
in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
In One Blood, Love writes about the many counter-legends which have
circulated regarding the career and contributions of Drew. One
counter-legend questions the actual role and responsibility he had in
developing the blood bank. Some of the others can be viewed as further
indication of society’s failure to acknowledge the importance of
African American achievements. In her book, Love concludes that “the
whole subject of Drew’s scientific contribution is as fraught with bias
and emotion as the subject of his death is.”
One Blood also tells the story of Maltheus Reeves Avery, a man whom
history has forgotten. Eight months after Drew’s fatal accident, Avery
had an automobile accident in the same Alamance County in North
Carolina. He was initially taken to the same hospital where Drew died,
but was later moved to Duke Hospital in Durham, where he was refused
treatment. The refusal was based on the shortage of beds available for
Love’s excellent research uncovers how, in time, many people
confused Avery’s death with that of Charles Drew. Avery’s treatment
provided proof that on a regular basis African Americans were being
discriminated against in the medical field. This “proof,” the author
maintains, led to the development of the myth around Drew’s accident.
Avery’s death confirmed the negative opinions many African Americans
had about health care in the South.
Love’s “detective” work brings the making of history to the dinner table, where everyday folk tell and pass historical truths.
Dr. E. Ethelbert Miller is the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.
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