By Fred Woods
Dr. John Wesley Darden
John Wesley Darden, born Sept. 27, 1876, in Wilson, N.C., was the eldest child of Charles Henry and Dianah Scarborough Darden. In their book, “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine,” Norma Jean and Carol Darden have this to say about their uncle, Dr. John W. Darden. “From the age of ten, when he was unable to find medical assistance for his unconscious sister, Annie, John had one driving goal, and that was to become a doctor.
“At the age of thirteen, he was sent by Papa Darden to high school in Salisbury, N.C. Lean years followed as he worked his way through Livingstone College, medical school and an internship in Long Island, N.Y.
“His was a long, hard struggle, but when he made it the pattern was established that the younger ones would follow. Summer jobs, mainly on the railroad and ships, took John all over the country. But he always found his way back to Wilson (N.C.) to share what he had seen and learned of the world and to encourage his brothers and sisters in their pursuits. By the time he was ready to put out his shingle in 1903, Wilson already had black medical care, so John went deeper south, settling in Opelika, Ala., where, as the only black doctor in a 30-mile radius, he was greeted with an 18-hour workday.”
After a time, Darden opened a drugstore on Avenue A. His brother, J.B., had just earned his degree in pharmacy from Howard University, so he was recruited as a partner. The two brothers dispensed prescriptions and cosmetics, ice cream and a lot of good cheer, and the store became a meeting place for the community. Local residents say that their Sunday was not complete without a stroll to the drugstore for a chat and a scoop of Darden’s homemade ice cream.
Among Darden’s medical contemporaries was Dr. Homer Bruce. Bruce held the black doctor’s skills in high esteem, and, unusual for their time, the doctors frequently called each other in for consultation.
Darden died Jan. 10, 1949. He and his wife, Jean, who died in 1976, are buried in Rosemere Cemetery.
Frank Evelyn Steele
Dr. Frank E. Steele, a native of the island nation of Trinidad, was another of Opelika’s prominent black doctors. Steele received his early education in New York, took his undergraduate degree at Alfred University and completed medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC.
In 1947 Steele opened his office on 9th Street in downtown Opelika. He also practiced at the John A. Andrews Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee. At the time of his death he was serving as coordinator of Outpatient and Long Term Care Services at the VA Hospital.
Steele, his wife, Corrine, and daughter (now Florence Steele Kidd of Nashville, Tenn.), lived on Auburn Street across the street from the Dardens. Steele died in 1977 and was buried in New York City after funeral services in both Opelika and Tuskegee.
Eugene A. Lindsey
Opelika’s other prominent early black physician was Dr. Eugene A. Lindsey. He was born in 1882 in LaGrange, Ga., and died in May of 1955. He was also the owner of Lindsey’s Drugstore and Soda Fountain on Ninth Street. It was one of the few places where black citizens could sit while waiting for prescriptions to be filled or just sit and socialize. The drugstore was still in full operation in the late1950s, apparently operated by someone other than Lindsey.
The Lindseys built a beautiful brick colonial home on the east end of Avenue A, just east of 3rd Street. The house was later used as a funeral home for a time and is now abandoned, but one can still see vestiges of its former beauty and grandeur.
Dr. W.F. Clark, a native of Selma, was born in 1882. Clark was the first, and for many years the only, black dentist to practice in Opelika. He completed college and dental school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., finishing dental school at the head of his class.
The friendly, small-in-stature dentist practiced his profession in a building in downtown Opelika for more than 50 years. He was apparently highly respected in the dental profession based on his numerous writings in refereed journals and his membership on numerous prestigious professional committees.
Clark was married to the former Fannie Logan, the sister of Jean (Mrs. J.H.) Darden, the subject of an “Observer” story last week. The beloved gentle dentist died in 1966.