Cultural Conversation: Opening Doors Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons Exhibit


Staff report

Even though Dr. Virgil Norris was a surgeon, he would see patients with all ailments.

If it was 4:30 p.m. on a Friday and his waiting room was full, he would see every patient. Even if it meant, he would be working late.

Norris was a surgeon in Palm Beach County during a period of time where black residents were afraid to go to a white doctor, said Spady Museum Director Charlene Farrington Jones.

At the time, black patients were being injected with syphilis to see what its effects on the body were, without their knowledge.

So instead of turning about skeptical patients or referring them to another doctor, Norris would help them.

His story and others are part of an exhibit at Delray’s Spady Museum. Opening Doors Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons explore date role of African Americans as health care providers in the history of medicine.

It is a topic that is often overlooked, but African Americans have been practicing medicine for decades as physicians, healers, midwives and “bush medicine practitioners.”

Early black physicians not only became skilled practitioners, but also educators and trailblazers, paving the way for future physicians, surgeons, and nurses and opening doors to better health care for African American communities. The exhibit highlights the achievements of these early pioneers.

Jones said bringing the exhibit was an idea of one of Spady’s board members who wanted to find a traveling exhibit that featured health care.

“We looked for a traveling exhibit on health care and how it was handled and how it is being handled today,” she said.

She said they infused that exhibit with local history and how health care was in Palm Beach County. Norris’s family donated some of his items to be featured in the exhibit.

Also on display at the museum are three paintings of the original Florida Highwaymen and one A.E. Backus painting. This exhibit, a satellite site for Florida Atlantic University’s Ritter Art Gallery, examines the relationship between “Bean” Backus and his pupil, Alfred Hair and examines the socio-economic issues of Black artists in Jim Crow Florida. The secondary theme is the application of the American dream in appropriately creative and unconventional ways. The paintings are on loan from private collections.

Spady Museum is open from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday. The museum is closed on Sundays. Admission: $10; Members are free.

For more information, call 561-279-8883 or visit