Grace M. James

Born: August 12, 1923

Died: January 14, 1989

Grace James, born to Edward and Stella James in Charleston, WV, knew she wanted to go into medicine by the time she attended high school. Her parents, who worked as a produce company owner and a postmaster, didn't think they'd be able to afford to help her financially through medical school so she majored in biology and did courses in social work while she attended West Virginia State College. During her undergraduate studies, she was awarded a fellowship by the National Tuberculosis Association to work at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City which opened her eyes to the needs of extremely poor.

After finishing her Bachelor of Arts in 1944, her first job was as a secretary earning $25 per week, but she yearned for a more fulfilling career. Through that first job, though, she made a trip to St. Louis to attend a national medical association meeting. Seeing Black physicians there, and feeling deeply the difference in stature between them and her position as secretary, she knew, "I didn't want to be anything less than a physician."

She went back to college to take courses in chemistry that she needed and her parents let her know that they could pay for her medical schooling. So she attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., one of the few medical schools available to Black students at the time. While she had no problem getting admitted, some of her classmates chastised the women students "that we should be home washing diapers and cooking."

After graduating Meharry in 1950, she completed an internship and then a pediatric residency with Harlem Hospital, followed by a clinical fellowship in pediatrics at the Vanderbilt Clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.

"As a fresh young doctor doing my internship at Harlem Hospital in New York City... no one could have felt more elated, and I might add important, than to walk into a ward of patients in the hospital all dressed in white skirt, blouse and jacket, and with a stethoscope hanging obviously around my neck, walk to the bed of the patient whom I was to treat for the first time and had never seen before. I would say, "Good Morning, Mrs. So and So, how do you feel today?" The patient would invariably reply, "Well, nurse, I feel fine."

— Dr. Grace James (James "Speech" 1958)

In 1952 she moved to Louisville and opened her private practice at 608 W. Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard). In November, she became an instructor in the outpatient children's clinic at General Hospital and in December 1953, the Louisville Medical School appointed her as its first Black female doctor. Previously, no Louisville hospital except for Red Cross Hospital (a segregated hospital for Blacks) had any Black staff members, but eventually, Dr. James earned hospital affiliations with numerous local hospitals including St. Joseph Infirmary, Jewish Hospital and Children's Hospital.

In 1964 she accepted a fellowship in child psychiatry at Creedmoor State Hospital in the Queens borough of New York City. On her return, the Kentucky Department of Mental Health hired her to head its division on mental retardation. During that time she designed a program for diagnosing and evaluating mental illness and impaired development in children. She left that position in 1967 averring that the state denied the program sufficient funds to hire the personnel necessary for "a high-quality program."

Dr. James was an outspoken and active advocate for what she believed in, but she also faced setbacks and opposition. In the early 1970s she was barred from the Medicaid program because of "over-utilization," but successfully argued for her reinstatement. The usage numbers deemed appropriate averaged the needs of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, while her practice worked with an urban population that represented high numbers of low income patients. Her office in Louisville served approximately 4,000 patients annually.

In Louisville she worked to "bring about an equalization of the practice of medicine. Black doctors should not relegated just to the ghetto. They should be able to practice medicine and deliver their services wherever they're needed." Correspondingly, she advocated for health access — and input into what health services and programs were made available — for the Black and poor communities of Louisville.

She had ambition and a dream to develop a "large, ambulatory health care center surrounded by neighborhood satellite health centers." In 1972 she founded West Louisville Medical Center, Inc., a non-profit organization promoting better health care in an area notorious for its poor access to quality medical services. The organization planned a new medical center for the west end of the city that would include not only medical services, but also health education, social services, dental and psychiatric services, rehabilitation, and lab services. Loans were secured through the U.S. Small Business Administration, Louisville's Citizens Bank, and the Ghetto Loan Investment Corp, and some of the doctors involved were provided by the National Health Service Corps. But in 1978 some of the doctors, whose salaries were funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, were fired due to changes in the CETA law which prompted the city to cut funding for 115 city workers. On top of that, the center had financial problems and a federal investigation ensued to determine if there was "gross mismanagement". West Louisville Medical Center faced foreclosure and, in 1980, Cardinal Medical Corp., Louisville, signed an agreement to take over the management of the center.

"I am the founder of the West Louisville Medical Center. I conceptualized it. I breathed life into it... I have tried to provide services to the community... without any personal gain. But people don't believe that. How do I re-establish myself as a professional in the community?"

— Dr. Grace James (Days 1980)

Dr. James answered that question by diving into her work as a devoted pediatrician, contributing to professional organizations, and giving her time to civic activities.

She belonged to several medical societies, including the American Medical Association, the National Medical Association, Kentucky State Medical Society, Jefferson County Medical Society, and the Falls City Medical Society, as well as more organizations specific to pediatrics. She was the first Black doctor in Louisville to earn a specialty certificate from the American Board of Pediatrics.

Her civic contributions included working on the board of directors of the West End Day Care Center, and membership with the Louisville Urban League, the Committee on Administration of the YWCA, and she was the first chairman of the Institutions and Agencies Committee of the Louisville Human Relations Commission. She fought against the "slum cycle" and for quality education programs for Louisville's poorer neighborhoods. She called on the community to step up and deal with issues like teen pregnancy, crime, and discrimination. "We are all in the ghettos so long as one man is down. What contribution have you made or have you worked for in providing or securing job opportunities for the less fortunate members of your community?"

She also promoted the idea that more Black people should be physicians. In 1983 she invited Black female physicians in Louisville to a fellowship meeting — she had recently counted sixteen of them. "[T]he Black female professional has three situation facing her — Black, female and professional — that the traditional White male who has been in the job all along doesn't have." She helped plan workshops to bring these women together to provide support for one another.

When Dr. Grace James died in 1989, Shelby Lanier, president of the Louisville Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People memorialized Dr. Grace James as having "opened the eyes of people and caused things to change."


"2 Negro Doctors Are Appointed to Faculty of U. Of L. Medical School." Courier - Journal, December 17, 1953, 2, 1.
"Grace Marillyn James, M. D." 1963. In Grace M. James Papers, 1989_036-UA. Box 3, Folder: Biographical, 1963-1988, University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections (Louisville, Ky).
"Ground to Be Broken for Medical Center." Courier - Journal, November 1, 1974, A27.
"State Doctor Quits Retardation Post." Courier - Journal, June 2, 1967, B1.
"West Louisville to Be Provided 2 More Doctors." Courier - Journal, December 23, 1972, A11.
Days, Michael. "A Woman with a Mission." Courier - Journal, December 3, 1980.
Eade, Christine. "U. S. Anti-Povery Program Called Paternalistic." Courier - Journal, August 14, 1967, B, 1.
James, Grace M. "An Opinion on Human Development Presented to National Conference on Health in the Black Community ". Nashville, TN, December 9-11, 1971. In Grace M. James Papers, 1989_036-UA. Box 6, Folder: Basic Health Services — West Louisville, University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections (Louisville, Ky).
James, Grace M. "Outline for a Community Health Center Excerpted from 'Delivery of Health Services for Children' Position Paper for National Medical Association." February 9, 1972. In Grace M. James Papers, 1989_036-UA. Box 6, Folder: Community Health Center, 1972, University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections (Louisville, Ky).
James, Grace M. "Speech for Women's Day at Virginia Avenue Baptist Church." August 30, 1958. In Grace M. James Papers, 1989_036-UA. Box 6, Folder: Miscellaneous Speeches, 1958-1965, University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections (Louisville, Ky).
Matthews, Clarence. "Blacks Excluded from Health Planning, Doctor Charges." In Louisville Times, A3, September 1, 1971.
Miller, Calvin. "Her Legacy Lives On: Those Inspired by Dr. Grace James Say They'll Continue Her Work." Courier - Journal, January 25, 1989, Neighborhoods, 5.
Stanley, Lamonte. "Local Physician Feels Attention and Caring Important for Success." In The Louisville Defender, 5, April 10, 1986.