JC150: History of early African American physicians

Tanner Cook • Jul 7, 2019 at 4:24 PM

The medical field has always been a staple in the culture of Johnson City.

One of the earliest African American physicians to make his way to this area was Dr. Hezekiah B. Hankal. He came shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. No one seems to know where he received his education, but as a physician, he practiced mostly in the Cherokee community among the Dutch people.

During the cholera epidemic of 1873, his exceptional medical skills received the attention of many white physicians. While his patients lived, the ones that were treated by the white physicians were not so fortunate.

After 1873, Dr. Hankal established a practice that served both black and white patients and it flourished. Dr. Hankal was also an educator who taught at the Log Cabin School on Rone Hill. He also served as the preacher at the West Main Street Christian Church.

Dr. Hankal was one of the instrumental people in establishing the Langston School, which was built in 1893 on Myrtle Avenue.

Another early African American physician was Dr. S.S. McKay. He came to Johnson City in the 1800s and practiced until his death in 1921. Not much is known about Dr. McKay.

Fast forward more into the 20th century to Dr. Otha W. Sherrill, who came to Johnson City in the early 1900’s. He was from Mooresville, North Carolina and even had an advertisement in the 1909 Langston High annual concerning his practice at 103 Public Square.

Dr. Sherrill stayed in Johnson City until the 1950’s when he retired and moved to New Haven, Connecticut. He later passed away in Baltimore after he had gone to live with his daughter, Elaine.

There were several dentists in the area that practiced in Johnson City, but lived in nearby places like Bristol. The first dentist to continually live in Johnson City was Dr. Eugene Kilgore.

Dr. Kilgore came to the city in July of 1951 to establish his practice after receiving a B.S. degree from North Carolina Central University and serving a term in the United States Army during World War II.

After he was discharged, he enrolled at Meharry Medical College’s School of Dentistry in Nashville. He received his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree in June 1951 and immediately went to work.

In March of 1976, Dr. Kilgore was appointed by Governor Ray Blanton to the Tennessee Board of Dentistry for a three year term. Following the end of his first term, Governor Lamar Alexander appointed him again in 1979.

Dr. Kilgore seemed to be all over the place in Johnson City, holding several positions including Chairmen of the Board of Trustees at St. Paul A.M.E. Church, a seat on the Board of Directors at the Johnson City Boys and Girls Club, a position at the N.A.A.C.P. and a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at North Carolina Central. He was awarded “Omega Man of the Year” in 1978 by the Phi Tau Chapter. He was also known for occasionally appearing in education columns in the 1960s and 70s in the Johnson City Press Chronicle.

Dr. Kilgore passed away on October 9, 1996 and an excerpt from the Johnson City Press said, “The community has lost an outstanding leader. We offer our deepest sympathy to his wife on her loss -- and on Johnson City’s loss.”

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