Ross Barnett assists Mississippi black woman to go to Medical School

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segregationist Ross Barnett

A young Ross Barnett, a practicing attorney in Jackson, Mississippi

Jackson, Mississippi, November 5, 1954: Former gubernatorial candidate and staunch segregationist, Ross Barnett, has assisted the black family of Helen Beatrice Barnes, 22, with a medical school loan.  Barnes is a Negro pre-med student, who was born here in Jackson but is a graduate of Hunter College in New York City.

Barnes’ grandmother, Harriet Watson, once worked as a domestic in the Barnett family. Apparently, Watson called Barnett, who practices law here, and told him her gifted granddaughter wanted to go to med school.  Since the family had little money for such an expensive education, she asked Barnett how med school could happen.

According to Watson, Barnett told her that the state legislature had a program for medical educational loans, if doctors agreed to practice for five years in rural Mississippi. The family applied for the loan, last spring.  They were rejected for reasons of race.  However, the State Legislature changed the medical education loan law in special session, this summer, to allow blacks.  Barnes reapplied.  Yesterday, she received word she got $5,000 (about $41,000 today) for med school.

Helen Barnes is the only woman among nine blacks who were given the loans.

Since the University of Mississippi med school does not allow blacks, Barnes plans to attend Howard University in Washington DC, where she currently works in the Clinical Chemistry Laboratory.  The other eight applicants will go to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.

The educational road traversed by Barnes has not been easy. She was raised by her grandmother here in Jackson after her mother went to work as a domestic in the affluent community of Rye, New York, a suburb of New York City.  In 1939, Barnes, age 11, joined her mother in the North, not to live with her but to go to a Catholic boarding school for blackses and American Indians in Cornwells Heights in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The nuns there found Barnes to be extremely smart, but she was also headstrong, disobedient, and just plain obstinate. For her stubborn defiance, the nuns punished her time and again by forcing her to work in the school’s infirmary. Oddly enough, the experiences of this infirmary punishment made her decide to become a doctor.

overcoming segregation in the South

Helen Barnes in the mid-1950's when male professors urged her to leave med school to make room for men. Her response? "You boys are just whistlin' Dixie! I'm stayin'!"

But, becoming a doctor was never a gauzy childish dream for this young, southern, black woman; it was an absolute fixed fact. Youthful obstinacy evolved into extraordinarily determined drive.  Eventually, she attended St. Patrick’s High School in New York City where she became an accomplished violinist, who played Carnegie Hall, and straight A student. Then, it was on to Hunter College, graduating Cum Laude in 1950.

Powerful persistence seems to be a way of life for Miss Barnes. She is now seeking entrance into a white male dominated profession, even as racial violence and animosities are breaking out all around us. By always going that extra mile on her road in life, she finds fewer women and even fewer blacks traveling with her. It could be a lonely trip for most of us, but not for Barnes.  Her practical nature appears to mock racists, as she injects herself into white society, based on reason and abilities and sheer will – not skin color or gender.

Yesterday’s loan for med school, originally  suggested by Ross Barnett, was yet another big step for her in pursuit of—not her dream, but pursuit of her absolute unequivocal “fact”—being a doctor.


Of course, Ross Barnett and Helen Barnes veered even further apart on their individual roads in life. She became a doctor.  He became Governor. Dr. Barnes injected herself positively into the total American society; Gov. Barnett became even more determined that the black race would never be allowed to do this.  As usual, Barnes was right; Barnett was wrong.

Dr. Barnes fulfilled her loan obligation with much of her work occurring in the Delta.  She eventually became one of the foremost OB-GYNs in the state.

In the late 1960’s, after years of practice and delivering thousands of babies—black and white, she took her extraordinary medical talent in another direction—teaching at the University Medical Center in Jackson.  For the next 35 years, her medical knowledge, disciplined will, and practical common sense approach to medicine influenced more than a generation of OB-GYNs of all colors.

To them, Dr. Barnes is, and forever will remain, a teacher, a mentor, and a close friend and confidant. She retired in 2003 but is certainly not forgotten.

Dr. Helen Barnes, today, in Jackson, at 82 and after retiring from 45 years of medicine

The telephone at her home was constantly ringing during my interview.  Doctors calling for advice.  Doctors calling to take her to lunch.  Doctors calling just to talk.  At 82 years old, she is still quick witted and articulate on virtually any subject, and her legendary kindly, but powerful, demeanor  shines through.  Dr. Helen Beatrice Barnes is a part of Southern Memories never to be ignored.

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