The Victory of Greenwood: Dr. Charles Bate

Dr. Charles Bate

The surname “Bate” is likely not well-known in Oklahoma, but it’s most certainly recognized in Tennessee. Humphrey Bate was born in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, on May 25, 1875. He spent his teenage years collecting pocket change playing harmonica on steamboats traveling the Cumberland River. He eventually attended medical school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and was a professional surgeon for most of his life. But his harmonica, not his medical career, is what made Dr. Bate famous. He’d formed a band that played parties and silent movie theatres, getting popular enough by 1925 to be played on early Tennessee radio stations WDAD, and then WSM, on a show called The WSM Barn Dance. The Barn Dance’s name changed to The Grand Ole Opry and Dr. Bate, dubbed the “Dean of The Grand Ole Opry,” became a regular on the show with his band “Dr. Humphrey Bate & His Possum Hunters.” 

Dr. Bate’s cousin, William Brimage Bate, served as Governor of Tennessee from 1883 to 1887, and then U. S. Senator from 1886 until his death in 1905. He had previously served with the Confederate Army in the Civil War, he started his service as a captain and eventually was promoted to major general. William had a half-brother, Mark, the son of his father, James Henry Bate and one of James’ slaves named Bess.

Mark had a son, Charles B. Bate, also born in 1875. Governor Bate, recognizing that his half-brother played a large part in taking care of the children of the family while he and many others in the Bate family were serving in the war (eight members of the Bate family were killed during the war), made sure that Charles was able to attend school. Charles married Nora O. Turner, born in 1881. They had three children: Ola M. Bate, born in 1904, Charles James Bate, born January 9, 1914, and Wilbur Bate, born in 1919. The doctor who delivered Charles and Wilbur was Dr. Humphrey Bate.

Destined to Become a Doctor
“There were seven doctors in my family.” Dr. Charles Bate explained in a 2003 interview with doctors Gerald E. Gustafson, Robert M. Shepard, Jr., and George W. Prothro. “Two first cousins, an uncle, an aunt once removed and then there were two white doctors named Bate.” Both his parents also had an education and were teachers. Mark Bate taught history and math, and Nora Bate taught grammar and Latin.

Charles Bate attended high school in Galveston, Tennessee, graduated from Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College (today known as Tennessee State University) in 1934, and then from Meharry Medical College in 1938. He worked at Hubbard Hospital in Nashville to complete his internship at Meharry. At this time, there were only two medical schools that Black students could attend—Meharry and Howard University in Washington, D.C. Fortunately for Bate, Meharry Medical College was a short forty miles from his home in Castalian Springs.

One of his schoolmates at Meharry convinced Bate that there would be more opportunities to practice medicine in Oklahoma. He arrived in Tulsa on April 28,1940, with his new wife, Violet Haywood. Dr. Bate found that there were only 16 other Black doctors in the area, and he was the youngest. The small community of doctors welcomed him. “One of the greatest things for me was meeting Dr. David Hudson, a urologist from Johns Hopkins who operated a government VD clinic in Tulsa.” Dr. Hudson was thrilled to discover that Bate was well-practiced at giving intravenous injections, which was his main job during his internship at Meharry for two years, where he gave hundreds of injections a week. “I had a tremendous amount of experience giving injections and examining syphilis patients. Dr. Hudson needed someone to help him. He took me in and sometimes we would have 300 people twice a week to treat for syphilis.” In a matter of a few weeks, Dr. Hudson and Dr. Bate worked together as peers.

Dr. Bate’s early career wasn’t glamorous. Still, it was necessary, especially for a community that didn’t have many medical resources. In a May,1980 interview with Cheri Poyas, a volunteer with the Junior League of Tulsa, Dr. Bate described in great detail the role of the Black doctor during the Jim Crow era. Black doctors needed to be able to practice in hospitals and do house calls. They were expected to be pillars of the church community, participate in school activities, and be involved in the Chamber of Commerce. They were called upon to practice alongside Black and white doctors alike. And they were expected to work sometimes for trade. “A lot of the doctors were paid in livestock…chickens, hogs, cows, just anything, and that’s [the way it] was.”

By 1945, Dr. Bate decided that he could help prevent venereal diseases if the community just had a little more education. He’d convinced the pastor at his church and teachers at schools in Greenwood to allow him to come and teach about hygiene, basic sexual education, and preventing sexually-transmitted diseases. Expecting an enormous backlash, the church and the schools instead received thankful phone calls from parents.

“One of the most rewarding experiences we ever had was working with Dr. Shepard, Dr. R.C. Bryant , and Dr. W. N. Coots in a public health clinic about 20 feet by 15 feet, next to a chicken house.” Dr. Shepard treated tuberculosis patients. Dr. Coots examined patients with other chest symptoms. Dr. Bryant and Dr. Bate saw prenatal cases. This was a time before prenatal care existed, and pediatric medicine was just emerging as a specialty. “On Mondays I would see as many as 40 or 50 babies. This was before the advent of antibiotics, anti-tubercular drugs, free general medical clinics, birth control pills and ultrasound. Infant mortality was unbelievably high.”

Working with Dr. Frank L. Flack 
Bruce Pitts was admitted to Moton Hospital in 1940, under the care of Dr. Bate. He was an employee of Sinclair Oil, and so the company phoned Bate to tell him that the company’s chief surgeon, Dr. Frank L. Flack, would be sent over to take over Pitts’ case. After reading Pitts’ history, Dr. Flack concluded that Pitts had tuberculosis. Dr. Bate disagreed, saying that Pitts had pneumonia. The two got into an argument about recent medical research and diagnoses, and finally, Dr. Bate grew frustrated with talking. “Doctor, I’m going to show you that this man has fluid, and the nurse had it set up already, and so I drew a quart of fluid out.” Today this test is called a pleural fluid analysis; doctors test fluid that collects around the lungs due to infection for the bacteria that causes pneumonia. Impressed, Dr. Flack asked Dr. Bate to assist him in a surgery he was to perform at Moton. 

The two became close friends, and Dr. Flack mentored Dr. Bate, having him and other doctors come to his house to study. The two doctors performed two or three surgeries together every week at Moton and Mercy hospitals. As a result of Dr. Flack’s mentorship and his own hard work, Dr. Bate was one of the first Black doctors to be published in the American Journal of Surgery, writing about a case of an ectopic pregnancy. They were close colleagues until Dr. Flack’s death in 1963. Dr. Bate recounted that during the nearly 20 years the two doctors performed surgeries together, one could count the number of fatalities on their table on one hand.

Tulsa Medical Society’s First Black Doctor 
The Tulsa Medical Society’s history with Black doctors was complex. In 1921, the medical society provided money and medical supplies to Black doctors who had lost everything in the Massacre. Later that decade, a medical society member who was a friend to one of the Black doctors in Greenwood invited Black doctors to attend a lecture by a visiting eminent physician. All the Black doctors who were invited came and were instructed to sit in the back of the room. A white physician got up and stretched a sheet in front of them. They all politely got up and left.

Mercy Hospital, which was owned by Dr. Wade Sisler, was the first hospital in Tulsa to integrate both patients and hospital staff. “Dr. Sisler was unselfish. He would come to Moton and help and he never turned anyone down. If you didn’t have any money, well that was alright,” Dr. Bate explained in a February 2003 interview with the Tulsa County Medical Society. Black patients in all Tulsa hospitals except Moton and Mercy were segregated until the 1960s. “If a Negro doctor sent a patient to see a white doctor in the Medical Arts Building, they had to come after 6 p.m.” During this time, it was rare for Hillcrest and St. John to admit Black patients. Hillcrest would, on occasion, admit Black patients through the basement to be treated in the printer’s room. Unless an oil executive or employer demanded it, St. John’s Hospital did not take Black patients.

In 1947, Dr. Lovere, an Austrian pathologist, visited Tulsa at a joint meeting of Hillcrest and St. Johns hospitals’ staff, and Dr. Flack presented Dr. Bate’s academic papers on ectopic pregnancies. The doctor asked where Bate was. Dr. Flack and his colleagues had to admit that Dr. Bate himself was not allowed to attend the conference because he was Black.

In a special session on the evening of November 10,1952, the Tulsa County Medical Society voted to amend its bylaws to create a “scientific membership” category. Following the vote, Dr. Berget H. Blockson nominated Dr. Bate to be admitted to the society under this new category. Robert M. Shepard, Jr., M. D., recalled, “…there was one or two who were prepared to filibuster all night against the motion. The rest of us were prepared to stay. About midnight we finally voted.” Dr. Bate was the first Black member of the society. The decision to admit him made the Tulsa World’s front page later that week.

“That made the Negro newspapers all over the country,” Dr. Bate recalled. “Some said they would run Dr. E. N. Lubin out of town for signing my application. He later became president of the medical society.” Membership in the Medical Society allowed Bate to use all of the society’s medical facilities and attend all its medical conferences. However, with Jim Crow laws still in full force in Tulsa, he was still not allowed to attend any of the society’s social events. He would eventually become a full member and, in 1984, became the first Black doctor to receive the society’s Doctor of the Year award. He was also honored by the National Medical, Dental & Pharmaceutical Association in 1978, and the Oklahoma Medical, Dental & Pharmaceutical Association in 1982. He received the Community Role Model Award from the Academy Central Parent-Teacher Association in 1987. Dr. Bate also served as the team physician for the Booker T. Washington High School football team for over 30 years.

Operation Hope
In 1966, Dr. Bate established Operation Hope, an Oklahoma City program to help high school girls train to become office assistants and medical aides. One night after spending $250 to host a dinner for some colleagues at his house, Dr. Bate had gone out to buy some more ice for the dinner party. He encountered a young lady who asked him for a dollar. He asked, “Why don’t you go to work?” She replied, “Dr. Bate, I would work if I knew anything I could do.” He gave her the dollar, but her reply bothered him for the rest of the night. “Well that thing worried me all night long if I knew anything to do. And I thought about how much money I’m spending all for a party which we’re going to eat up and drink up.” 

He decided to create a program that would teach women who didn’t have education or skills to help themselves out of poverty. Dr. Bate planned to teach 20 students, but 59 enrolled for the first course. The Red Cross provided speakers, and local companies and churches offered help. At the end of the six-month series of Saturday afternoon classes, several of the students were employed in local hospitals.

His next community program was far more ambitious. Dr. Bate had started doing blood pressure screenings at Reverend Chappelle’s church and Morningstar Baptist. “Well, there was a line of people…up to the store—at least a block long. And the newspaper and the TV, they wanted to know what all these people were doing lined up on a Sunday.” He got the idea to set up a booth at the Tulsa State Fair to increase the number of people he could screen. A booth at the fair cost $250, and he went to the Zarrow family to cover the cost of the booth, to which they agreed. The free blood pressure booth at the fair was an astonishing success. Dr. Bate and a group of interns from St. John’s Hospital performed 10,000 screenings the first year. The program gained national attention and was replicated in several cities across the U. S.

We’ve Come a Long Way 
In January 1986, Dr. Bate published a book on the history of Oklahoma Black medical providers titled It’s Been a Long Time and We’ve Come a Long Way. Indeed, he had witnessed Greenwood grow from a community that was still rebuilding in 1940 from the 1921 Massacre into the thriving community celebrated nationwide, well into the late 1960s. In the 1993 documentary, Goin’ Back to T-Town, Dr. Bate spoke fondly of Greenwood, saying, “[Y]ou could get anything you needed, it was there. I like to tell the story of someone coming to my [doctor’s] office paying two dollars, and my going down to the Busy Bee Café and eating and paying 90 cents. And then [Susie Bell] at Busy Bee going over to McGowan’s to buy some hose. McGowan was going to buy his prescription at the pharmacy. Bowser going down to McKay’s and getting his pants pressed. The man from there going over to the Black dentist, all within a one and a half block area. A dollar perhaps turned over 12 or 13 times.” Even Bate’s impressive estimate was only half the level of economic activity during its heyday.

Ercelle Jewell Pierson was born on May 14,1921, in Wyandotte County, Kansas. Pierson moved to Tulsa in 1942, accepting a teaching position at Booker T. Washington High School. She taught physical education and choreographed the dances for Hi-Jinks, the school’s annual variety show from the late 1940s to the early 1950s. It is unclear when Dr. Bate and Ercelle were married, but she was known as Miss Pierson at Booker T. After the family’s four daughters were grown, she returned to teach at Walter Reed Elementary School (and there she was referred to as Mrs. Bate), and retired in 1985. She passed on June 26, 2016.

Dr. Bate passed on February 6, 2004. In 2008, the nonprofit, Cultivating Aspiring Leaders, and the Charlotte A. Lewis Foundation established the Charles James Bate, M. D. Chairman’s Scholarship to honor, encourage, and financially assist exemplary students committed to providing healthcare services and education to underserved communities upon graduation.

Though it was written in 1986, Dr. Bate’s book It’s Been a Long Time and We’ve Come a Long Way continues to be inspiring and insightful. One would imagine a book about medical history to be dull, but Bate brings important historical figures such as Dr. John B. Quinton, a Civil War doctor from New York who settled in Indian Territory in the 1870s, and Dr. Gravelly Eugene Finley who worked in the historic Deep Deuce area of Oklahoma City and voluntarily made trips to practice medicine in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia to life with colorful stories, bible verses, even song lyrics and poems. One gets the sense that Bate believed medicine to be not just a science but a service to one’s community and a kind of spiritual practice.

It’s Been a Long Time also contains a significant amount of Oklahoma history as well as cultural wisdom. He wrote, “The Negro has been impoverished by not knowing his history—which has been a glorious one in spite of an overt attempt to hide it. Other peoples, too, are penalized for their ignorance of Negro history.” It is only in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened awareness of systemic racism against Black and Asian people that the conversations about race have come out of their siloes; we are beginning to see that the histories of Black, Latinx, Native, Asian, and all people of color are both intertwined and interdependent.