Fifty-five years ago, Dr. Levi S. Kirkland Sr. came to Greenville to practice as our county’s first African-American surgeon.
It was 1961. Two years earlier, baseball great Jackie Robinson and other African Americans were hassled for sitting in the waiting room at the Greenville Municipal Airport, even though it was against the law to discriminate against interstate travelers in public waiting rooms. Many of the Upstate’s schools were also still segregated, despite the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ordered the desegregation of schools seven years earlier.
It therefore goes without saying that this was a difficult climate for a young African-American surgeon whose practice ordinarily would be built upon referrals from other physicians. Dr. Kirkland, who is a native of Camden, had to build his practice from the ground up to care for his patients various healthcare needs, including surgery.
Greenville Health System has recognized Dr. Kirkland in recent years by renaming a scholarship fund that benefits African-American students attending the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville in his honor. We have received an $800,000 donation from the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation and $20,000 from BMW Manufacturing Co. GHS’ Physicians Diversity Council was also renamed the Levi S. Kirkland, MD (LSK) Society. A central mission of the group is to continue Dr. Kirkland’s lifelong work of providing compassionate, innovative and quality-filled care to minority communities.
GHS’ LSK Society’s primary goal is to collaborate with individuals and institutions to facilitate the success of healthcare educators, administrators, providers and students as they work to improve our communities. Through the LSK Society, Dr. Kirkland’s vision is married to that of GHS as it advances healthcare for generations to come. These recognitions of our medical system’s past will undoubtedly positively influence our ability to care for our patients in the future.
Dr. Kirkland is now nearing 90 years of age. He was a friend and graduating classmate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College. He is a member of the greatest generation on Earth. Whether they stormed the beaches of Normandy, parachuted into Korea or broke down 200 years of institutionalized racism, his generation had a significant impact on our society.
GHS’ efforts to honor Dr. Kirkland stem from a willingness to recognize our past. There is no better way to see the brightness of our light going forward than by pausing to reflect upon the darkness of some facets of our past. That’s how we better our communities and one of the best ways to honor the legacies of folks like Dr. Kirkland. The society and scholarship fund bearing his name will now shine as examples that all of us have to leave our communities more caring, more cohesive and healthier than they would have been otherwise.