Retired physician delivers Black History Month remarks at Durham church

Feb. 24, 2013 @ 09:04 PM

It took him 26 hours by bus to get to Nashville, Tenn., where he went to medical school, said retired physician Dr. George Debnam, who delivered remarks in honor of Black History Month at North East Baptist Church on Sunday.

The Raleigh resident graduated from Meharry Medical College, a historically black school, in 1951, at age 23. He said he could not attend other medical schools in the state because at the time, they did not admit black students.

This was Debnam’s second year delivering a message at the church, said the Rev. Wesley Elam, the church’s pastor. Elam said the Black History Month celebration helps children.

“It changes the self-image of our children because they learn that they have a great heritage, that slavery is not our heritage,” Elam said.

In an interview after the service, Debnam said he graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh at 15. He said he worked as a salad boy and as a cook during college. As a physician, he said “everybody did everything” at the time, so he said he performed surgeries and delivered babies, among other tasks.

In his remarks to the congregation, he used a Bible story from the Book of Joshua to talk about people and events in American black history. In the story, stones are removed from the river Jordan to serve as reminders of how the Israelites were able to cross the river behind priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant.

Debnam used the story to deliver a message for fathers. He said it’s the father’s role is to pass information on to children. He asked “did you leave the children’s money at the whiskey store?” and asked fathers if they take their children to church.

“They charge the fathers with telling the children why those stones were in the Jordan,” he said. “They cannot answer the questions if they’re not at home,” he added.

Debnam went on to describe historic people and events. He described President Abraham Lincoln’s role in ending slavery, and in ending the Civil War. He spoke about minister John Newton, who was involved with the slave trade, but became an abolitionist.

Debnam spoke about abolitionist Frederick Douglass, of the contributions of black soldiers in the Civil War, of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and of Julius Rosenwald, former president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Jewish philanthropist who made donations to black institutions, among other causes.

He described those people, and others, as “stones” that he said helped black people come out of slavery.

“I’m telling you some of these things here – (these are) stones – we need to honor them, we need to honor them the way we live,” he said.

James Osler, a church member and a faculty member at the N.C. Central University School of Education, said Debnam was the mentor of his mentor.

“It’s just powerful to know you still have that legacy and leadership,” he said.

Beverly Graham, church secretary, praised Debnam’s use of the Bible in relating cultural and historical information. 

“That’s something for our young black men to strive for,” she said, speaking of his graduation from college at age 15.