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Obituary: Dr. Bernard C. Randolph Sr., a family doctor who considered health care a civil right

Dr. Bernard C. Randolph Sr.
Randolph family photo

Dr. Bernard C. Randolph Sr., a civil rights leader and a member of a small, tight-knit cadre of African-American doctors in St. Louis who began their practices during segregation, died this week.

Randolph, who sought and found myriad ways to blend medicine and activism, died of pneumonia on Saturday at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. He was 95.

Randolph, who grew up in New York during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, loved African-American history. His hero was W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP. Randolph would later become one of the organization’s staunchest supporters.

His budding activism was further bolstered as a teenager when his aunt, Dorothy I. Height, came to live with his family in New York to attend college. Height became a revered leader of both the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

Randolph did not choose to follow in his aunt’s professional footsteps, but civil rights became an enduring part of his life. He believed access to adequate health care was a civil right.

In 1963, he was a member of the National Medical Association delegation that met with President John F. Kennedy to promote legislation to establish Medicare and help end racial discrimination in hospitals. African-Americans had formed the NMA because the American Medical Association refused membership to black doctors. It did not do so until 1968.

By the time the AMA offered African-Americans doctors an apology for past treatment in 2008, thousands of St. Louisans had passed through the doors of the Tandy Medical Building at the corner of Natural Bridge and Kingshighway, where Randolph operated his family practice for more than 35 years.

A lack of money was no barrier to visiting Randolph, but he knew that many who needed care would never make it to his office. So, for more than 20 years, under the auspices of the NAACP, Randolph organized free community health screenings, often held at the Wohl Center, just a few miles south on Kingshighway.

“Dr. Randolph was very innovative in his work with the NAACP,” said his friend and former colleague, Dr. Nathaniel Murdock, “and one of the most reliable people I’ve ever known.”

A broader view

Randolph viewed not just health, but public safety as a basic right.

In 1974, he founded the St. Louis Council on Environmental Health and Safety to derail the building of the Callaway Nuclear Generating Station, fearing that the power plant would cause ground water contamination, if not an outright catastrophe.

Efforts to stop the building were unsuccessful.

The council continued to be a force on environmental issues. Each year, it gave savings bonds to high school students who wrote outstanding papers on environmental concerns.

Encouraging students in every area was one of Randolph’s primary goals. He believed one way to effect change was by becoming a doctor. His recruitment efforts included providing financial assistance for minority students. As president of the Mound City Medical Forum he initiated the Student Emergency Loan Fund. The fund grew to include scholarships funded by Mound City’s members and other private donors, prompting support from Washington University and Saint Louis University schools of medicine.

Two-way loyalty

“I knew him as a gentle man, a kind physician,” said a longtime friend, Dr. Olivia Polk.

Polk’s assessment was borne out in how Randolph retired: slowly, to ease the transition for his loyal patients. After leaving full-time practice, he spent two years with SSM Clayton Specialists Group partners Dr. Darren Weathers and Dr. Rajiv Patel, seeing his patients part-time.

A former resident of University City and Olivette, Randolph spent his final years in Creve Coeur. His family had long ago urged him to move his practice closer to home.

“That was absolutely out of the question,” said his daughter, Dana.

He was among the first tenants in the Tandy Building and there he stayed to remain close to the people he served.

Randolph’s kindness extended to numerous organizations. He was a lifetime member of the National Council of Negro Women, which his aunt, Dorothy Height, led for four decades, and the NAACP, where he served on the board of the St. Louis chapter for 20 years.

He was a past president of the Missouri Pan-Medical Association and of the National Medical Association’s Component and Constituents Society. In 1961, he was a member of the NMA’s “Mission to West Africa” delegation to promote communication with emerging independent African nations.

His many tributes included the NAACP “Heroes and Heroines Award,” the 1988 National Medical Association’s “Practitioner of the Year” award and the 2004 St. Louis American Foundation’s “Lifetime Achiever in Healthcare Award.” He received the “Salute to Black Men Award” from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. In 2006, he was awarded the “Lewis C. Green Environmental Service Award” by the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.

Randolph was a longtime member of Pilgrim Congregational Church, Chi Delta Mu and Phi Beta Sigma fraternities.

Touched by greatness

Bernard Clyde Randolph Sr. was born in New York City on May 22, 1922, the middle child of William Slanigan Randolph, a postal worker, and Jessie Briggs Randolph, a homemaker.

He grew up in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem during the Renaissance. It was also known as the “New Negro Movement,” an explosion of African-American arts and culture brought about by history-making artists and activists, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois.

For a time, it was also home to tap dance kings the Nicholas Brothers, who were Randolph’s neighbors.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and graduated from the Howard University School of Medicine in 1947. He did his residency in St. Louis at People's Hospital and Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the once-segregated proving grounds for black doctors from throughout the nation.

After completing residency, Randolph entered the Air Force during the Korean War. He earned the rank of captain while serving stateside at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

After his discharge in 1956, he recognized Rosa Parks as the seamstress who had tailored his uniforms. On Dec. 1, 1955, she had refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, sparking a prolonged Montgomery bus boycott that helped end segregated transportation throughout the nation.

“He was shocked and proud that she had taken the stand that she did,” said Randolph’s son, Paul.

When he returned to St. Louis in 1956, he met a family friend, Billie Jean Coleman. They married three months later on Halloween, said his daughter Dana, because, “it was his off day.”

A gentleman

Throughout his life, Randolph’s took few off days. Sometimes he took his children on Sunday hospital rounds. But he made time for his family.

“He lived his life to ensure that his wife, his children, his grandchildren, were loved and nurtured,” Paul Randolph said.

His last vacation with his wife was to the White House in 2010 to witness President Barack Obama’s signing of an order to rename a post office for Dorothy Height. He had met the president earlier that year at his aunt’s funeral, where both men spoke.

Randolph was preceded in death by his parents and brother, Howard V. Randolph.

His survivors include his wife of 61 years, Billie Jean Coleman Randolph, and their three children, Bernard (Kathleen) C. Randolph Jr., M.D., Dana Grace Randolph and Paul A. Randolph, all of St Louis; grandchildren, Arielle, Camille, Naima and Dana Grace Randolph, and a sister, Jean Randolph Linzey of San Jose, California.

Funeral services are pending.

Donations may be made to the Mound City Medical Forum Foundation, P.O. Box 8021, St. Louis, MO 63156-1820.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.