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    Chances are good that if you’re of the baby-boom generation and African-American, Dr. Grace Marilynn James treated your aches and illnesses. She began her pediatric practice in Louisville in 1953 when city hospitals were segregated. A respected physician, James’ lasting legacy is that of a fighter. A stern, passionate woman with a petite build and a mighty energy, she advocated for better health care and stronger social supports for poor black families. In a Courier Journal profile of James from the early ’80s, she is quoted as saying: “I will make noises if my patients are mistreated. I will scream at people if that’s what it takes. There are people who will discredit you because of your skin color.”

    James was born in Charleston, West Virginia, on Aug. 12, 1923. Her father owned a produce company and her mother was a homemaker. The middle of seven children, James was drawn to medicine from an early age. “I remember her telling me that when she was a kid her best friend died. He was 10,” says David James, her only son. “Ever since then she wanted to help people.” She would read medical books in her spare time, and, after graduating from West Virginia State University, she eventually entered Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated in 1950.

    David James remembers his mom as tireless. She would leave their house at 44th and Broadway early in the morning and sometimes not come home until 10 at night. As a kid, he’d often fall asleep at the top of the stairs while waiting for the rattle of the garage door, his cue that she had returned. The 58-year-old, who still lives in Louisville, never harbored any bad feelings about his mom’s marathon days. “I knew she was helping the community,” he says.

    Grace James was outspoken on the need to improve infant mortality rates in the black community. She often gave lectures denouncing racism and sexism in the field of medicine and pushed for a universal health-care system. According to several biographical accounts of her life, male doctors — both white and black — questioned her credentials and dismissed her advocacy. Despite all that, she became the first African-American woman on faculty at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and was the first black woman to obtain membership in the Jefferson County Medical Society.

    In addition to her pediatric practice, James treated patients at the downtown children’s hospital. In the CJ profile, a woman recalled how her young son had been struggling with chronic bronchitis and how previous doctors seemed unconcerned and just handed her medicine. The mother, Tina Fowler, stated that, in 1959, “I took my son to (James) along with the medicine Jewish Hospital gave me. She took the medicine and threw it in the trashcan and put my son in the hospital. She worked with him! I feel like she saved my son’s life, I really do.”

    James envisioned opening a walk-in clinic in the West End, complete with an OB-GYN, dental and primary-care services, and even a bank. It’s the kind of holistic approach that’s springing up now in a new Smoketown Wellness Center and the planned YMCA at 18th and Broadway. “She was always ahead of her time,” her son says.

    In 1976, James opened the West Louisville Medical Center at 23rd and Broadway. It’s estimated she saw roughly 100 patients every week in that clinic, mostly from surrounding neighborhoods like Russell, California and Shawnee. She was known to break from patient visits so she could gather parents in the waiting room and conduct impromptu lessons on parenting or healthy living. Financial struggles forced the clinic to close, but James continued to practice medicine until the day she died of heart failure in January 1989.

    In the days after her death, Louisville mourned. One friend eulogized her this way: “She’d sink her teeth into something and then shake it like a bulldog until she got what she wanted.” Her son remembers the compassionate side to his mother, remembers how she would accept a home-cooked meal as payment for medical care if a family didn’t have money to cover a bill. He also recalls the no-nonsense side, like how she called his bluff when he complained of a backache in the fourth grade. “There was a test at school that I wasn’t prepared for, so I did my my-back-hurts routine. She put me in the hospital. I had to get all these tests. I think she was like, ‘Don’t forget I’m a doctor.’” He never faked illness again.

    In the ’70s, Grace James headed the Council on Urban Education, a citizens’ group striving to improve educational outcomes for black children. She founded the Teen Awareness Project with a goal of reducing teenage birth rates among African-American girls. James wanted to heal, both those she examined and those she’d never see. In the days after her death, a civil rights leader and former Jefferson County school board chairman, Laken Cosby Jr., told the CJ: “She was not only an outstanding physician, but an outstanding social achiever for the poor.”

    This originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. Every story in our March issue is about west Louisville, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Click here to read more from part four of our series on the West End.

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    Cover photo by David M. James

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