Lincoln Laconia Burwell

L. L. Burwell Lincoln Laconia (L. L.) Burwell (1867-1928) was an African American physician, pharmacist, and entrepreneur who played a central role in improving rural health care for Black residents in the Alabama Black Belt. In the late 1890s, Burwell expanded his medical practice by opening Selma‘s first Black-owned pharmacy and, in 1907, founded the Burwell Infirmary—the city’s first Black hospital. Burwell also encouraged African American educators and communities to teach and celebrate Black history and culture with great pride as a means of resisting the period’s white supremacist falsehoods. During the Jim Crow era, Burwell gained national recognition for his medical research and advocacy for expanded access to health care for African Americans, who statewide had been denied equal treatment by white supremacists in racially segregated facilities.

L. L. Burwell was born on October 25, 1867, in McKinley, Marengo County. Burwell’s parents, Charles and Amanda Burwell, struggled to raise five children, four sons and a daughter, as they emerged from the horrors of slavery without land or personal wealth. They worked as sharecroppers on their former white enslaver’s estate. Unable to support their growing family, Burwell’s parents sent the eight-year-old Lincoln to live with an older brother, Charles Burwell Jr., in Perry County. Although the Burwell brothers also faced enormous economic hardships and often moved back and forth between Perry and Marengo Counties, Charles made significant sacrifices to ensure that his younger brother attended school.

Burwell excelled at school. In 1884, his enrollment at the Alabama Baptist Normal and Theological School (present-day Selma University) was likely influenced by his interactions with the many Selma University-trained Black educators teaching at Black Belt schools. Many Selma University students had to first complete a series of preparatory courses before enrolling in college-level classes. Burwell enrolled immediately in the college program, indicating that he and his family had previously secured educational opportunities beyond what most Black students received. Burwell’s mother scraped together $30 to help pay for his tuition, and his brother worked extra jobs to cover costs. Meanwhile, Burwell juggled the intellectual demands of college-level courses with the many manual-labor jobs needed to sustain his enrollment. For example, he worked as a farm laborer in Perry and Marengo Counties during summer breaks. He overcame these challenges to become the valedictorian of the Selma University class of 1886.

At the time, there were few Black physicians in Alabama; medical education usually involved some college-level coursework followed by an extended internship with a sponsoring physician. Most communities, such as Selma, lacked a Black physician. Meanwhile, in Selma and several other urban centers, the growing affluence of Black middle-class communities produced both a supply and demand for Black health care providers. In 1882, Shaw University, a historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina, opened Leonard Medical School, the nation’s first medical school to offer a four-year curriculum. Several members of the Alabama Colored Baptist State Convention, the organization that supported Selma University, had ties with Shaw University and North Carolina and likely encouraged Burwell to pursue a medical degree. In 1886, Burwell enrolled there and compiled numerous academic achievements, including becoming the first student to complete the four-year program in three years and the first to earn a double degree in medicine and literature.

After graduation, Burwell opened a medical practice in Selma. Around 1889, he built a home near Selma University that also served as his medical office. Two years later, Burwell married Lavania Richardson of Hamner, Sumter County, who had come to Selma to attend the Baptist university and to become a Baptist missionary, educator, and choral instructor. The Burwell’s raised two daughters, Almedia L. Burwell and Elezora L. Burwell. In addition to serving in numerous Black civic organizations, the Burwell family also joined the Tabernacle Baptist Church, where they held several leadership positions.

Burwell Pharmacy Black communities also relied on white-owned segregated pharmacies to provide prescription and over-the-counter medicines. In the early 1890s, Burwell opened the first Black-owned pharmacy in Selma, which was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1897. Undeterred, Burwell reopened his business, but it too was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1913. Burwell trained Black pharmacists at the drug store, and several opened their own pharmacies across Alabama. In 1900, Burwell was a founding member of the National Negro Business League. At their inaugural meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, Burwell delivered a presentation titled “The Negro as Druggist” in which he encouraged attendees to enter the medical field to benefit Black citizens and their health and not for monetary rewards. Burwell conducted research at his drug store that reflected broader trends in American pharmaceutical production, as pharmacists nationwide tried to create a greater variety of purer, more effective, and less expensive medicines. Burwell’s motto “Curare Cito” (Cure quickly) drove his pharmaceutical and medical research and practice.

Burwell’s drug store comprised just a part of his expanding Black professional class interests. He also purchased a large two-story building near the pharmacy on Franklin Street in downtown Selma, where he rented office space to other Black entrepreneurs. Burwell also bought, sold, and leased several plots of land and houses in Selma. By the early 1900s, Burwell had risen from rural poverty to become one of the wealthiest Black men in America.

Burwell’s varied financial and professional interests never distracted him from his primary pursuit of becoming an exceptional physician. Burwell played a central role in the Black hospital movement in Alabama. As in the rest of the segregated Jim Crow South, African Americans were barred from working in or being treated at many hospitals in Alabama. In the 1890s, Burwell enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and earned a postgraduate degree in medicine. Despite being one of the best-trained physicians in Alabama, Burwell often struggled to provide care for his Black patients because of racial discrimination. White supremacist physicians falsely believed that no Black physician could provide appropriate care for hospitalized patients. Therefore, when Burwell’s patients were admitted to the local hospital, he could not serve as their attending physician. Instead, local white physicians, who usually had no prior relationship with these Black patients, assumed the role as attending physician. Prior to establishing a Black hospital, Selma’s Vaughan Memorial Hospital and the Union Street Hospital treated Black patients in a separate house located in their facility’s yard. The white nurses who staffed these hospitals did not render care to Black patients owing to the period’s racist beliefs that Black men were by nature sexual predators. Burwell argued that White physicians and nurses could not adequately treat Black patients because of their lack of understanding of the Black community’s social and cultural traits. Burwell refrained from directly attacking racial segregation and white supremacist fallacies. Instead, he argued for the development of viable Black-owned institutions, such as schools, churches, businesses, drug stores, and hospitals, as a necessary step toward greater demands for racial equality.

In 1907, with his private practice well-established, Burwell opened the Black Belt’s first Black-owned, operated, and staffed hospital. The Burwell Infirmary, located a few steps from Selma University in the center of a thriving Black middle-class neighborhood, was a 14-bed facility staffed by Black doctors and nurses. The lack of similar facilities elsewhere drew Black patients from across the Black Belt to the Burwell Infirmary. The hospital’s surgical center also provided Black physicians with critical learning opportunities and practice to hone their skills. Burwell also trained Black physicians and nurses, who often relocated to neighboring Black Belt communities to establish similar health care facilities. Most importantly, Burwell Infirmary provided a professional facility where Black patients could expect to be treated by their Black physician. Burwell Infirmary remained the primary Black hospital in Selma until 1922, when Edmundite missionaries opened the Good Samaritan Hospital.

Although Burwell promoted professional and educational opportunities for women, his views on women’s reproductive health mirrored the patriarchal attitudes of most male-dominated early twentieth-century physicians. Burwell vehemently opposed a woman’s right to physician-performed abortions. He also refused to advise women of available contraceptives. Burwell shared his opinion at several national medical association meetings that abortions and contraceptives were destroying Black women’s health and the Black community’s ability to “reproduce a strong, healthy race.”

Black and white Selma residents saw Burwell as a leading spokesperson of Black residents. White leaders trusted Burwell to provide advice and serve on a wide variety of municipal committees. During the 1890s, while Selma endured several yellow fever outbreaks, Selma’s white leaders relied on Burwell to organize relief measures throughout the city’s predominately poor Black communities. Burwell raised funds to provide medical care and quarantining of ailing Black residents. Although Burwell promoted Black history and culture and community pride in Black professional circles nationwide, his advocacy for expanding Black opportunities did not prevent him from building productive relationships with noted white supremacists Francis L. Pettus, Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives (1900-1901), and John Tyler Morgan, a U.S. Senator (1877-1907). Burwell openly praised Tuskegee University president Booker T. Washington‘s arguments that Black communities should focus their efforts on education and economic advancement in advance of their demands for civil equality. For example, Burwell encouraged the construction of new Black school buildings across the South through the Washington-led Rosenwald School Building Program. Burwell also encouraged Black business owners to mentor aspiring Black entrepreneurs through professional apprenticeships.

The Selma physician argued that more vigorous measures should be enacted to ensure that only the best educated and property-holding male citizens, Black or white, could vote. During the Spanish-American War, Burwell, like Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, actively recruited Black volunteers to serve in racially segregated American military units because he believed their patriotic example would help reduce the worst elements of racial discrimination. During the early twentieth century, thousands of Black residents fled the Alabama Black Belt to escape the mounting white on Black violence and to find better economic opportunities in northern cities and Appalachian coal towns in what became known as the Great Migration. Burwell urged them to remain, however, and help him transform Selma’s Black community through a more significant commitment to education and entrepreneurship. Burwell launched fundraising campaigns to establish better Black schools and lobbied Black educators to stress the dignity and distinctions of Black history and culture inside their classrooms. At several national meetings, Burwell declared that conditions in Black southern communities would not improve until they challenged white supremacists notions of Black inferiority by documenting and celebrating Black history and culture.

Burwell also saw the Black Baptist Church as a critical player in improving social conditions in Black communities across the globe. In 1897, Selma University appointed Burwell to the institution’s board of trustees. In that role, he supported the university’s expanding domestic and foreign missionary activity. Lavania Burwell also played a major role in training and supporting Black female missionaries.

On March 6, 1928, Burwell died after suffering a stroke and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Selma. Burwell Infirmary remained in operation until 1966, when the facility became a retirement home. Burwell’s home on Anderson Street in Selma was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 2015 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2022.

Additional Resources

Boothe, Charles Octavius. The Cyclopedia of the Colored Baptists of Alabama: Their Leaders and Their Work. Birmingham: Alabama Publishing Company, 1895.

Fallin, Wilson, Jr. Uplifting the People: Three Centuries of Black Baptists in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

National Negro Business League. Proceedings of the National Negro Business League. Boston: J.R. Hamm, 1901.

Ward, Thomas J., Jr. Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.

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