February 27, 2011

Feb 27 – Dr. John A. Kenney Jr: Medical Pioneer

Dr. John A. Kenney Jr.

I saw a wonderful article on NPR's website a couple of days ago, and felt a need to share the story of Dr. John A. Kenney Jr.

Born in 1883, the son of freed slaves, John was a farm boy, in the rural South, interested in furthering his education and getting off the farm.

John graduated from Shaw University’s Medical School in North Carolina, in 1901 -- initially making 'shack calls' to patients in his community. He then went onto be a resident at the prestigious, Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington DC (which eventually became Howard University Hospital).  Following his residency, Dr. Kenney became the school physician for the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which was headed by its first leader, Booker T. Washington, in Alabama. Dr. Kenney also became Mr. Washington’s personal physician, as well as for inventor, George Washington Carver.

Shaw University Medical School

Freedmen's Hospital

Faculty at Tuskegee Institute, including Booker T. Washington in the front row

Booker T. Washington
George Washington Carver

In 1909, Dr. Kenney founded the National Medical Association and its Journal, which he edited for 40 years.  The mission of the National Medical Association is “to advance the art and science of medicine for people of African descent through education, advocacy, and health policy to promote health and wellness, eliminate health disparities, and sustain physician viability.”

National Medical Association Journal Editorial Staff

Also while at the Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Kenney and Mr. Washington founded the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, in 1913 – the first full-service hospital for African-Americans, in the country. Dr. Kenney became its first Medical Director, and shortly thereafter, opened its first Clinical Society.   He also helped to fight a smallpox epidemic on campus and set up a medical system for the students and veterans.

John A. Andrew Hospital
John A. Andrew Hospital Operating Room

The early 1920s saw the U.S. Government's Veterans Administration (VA) build a separate, African-American hospital for soldiers returning from World War I. Dr. Kenney felt strongly that the hospital should have a completely African-American staff – from the doctors and nurses to the groundskeepers.  Conversely, many White southerners wanted control of the facility to conduct sterilization experiments on Black men. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) supported these experiments and had no intention of allowing Dr. Kenney to implement his plan. In 1923, twenty-two members of the KKK confronted him about it, and he defiantly answered, “I most emphatically do. Anything else would make me a traitor and a liar.”  The KKK was incensed and plotted to kill him. A friend tipped off  Dr. Kenney about a certain death threat from the KKK, so he and his family left Tuskegee minutes before the KKK set fire to his home with a burning cross.

Dr. Kenney found his way to Newark, New Jersey.  From his new home in New Jersey, Dr. Kenney worked with members of the National Medical Association and the NAACP to lobby the VA and the President for control of the hospital. Their efforts convinced the government that there were enough competent African-American physicians to staff and administer the Tuskegee VA Hospital.

Tuskegee VA Hospital

Tuskegee VA Hospital African-American staff

Meanwhile, Dr. Kenney had been practicing medicine for over 20 years, but he found that he did not have a hospital in Newark (or New Jersey) where he could work. African-American patients had nowhere to go, and neither did the doctors and nurses. With the knowledge of how to open a successful hospital,  from his experience at John A Andrew Hospital, Dr. Kenney decided to open one in Newark, with his own money.  On September 1, 1927, the Kenney Memorial Hospital opened its doors, with 30 hospital beds. For many years, it was the only hospital where African-American physicians, interns, nurses and patients had access in the entire state of New Jersey.
Kenney Memorial Hospital

A few years later, Dr. Kenney wanted to convert his private hospital into a community one, so donated the hospital to the African-American community of New Jersey on Christmas Eve, 1934 – despite opposition from his hospital committee.

The Community Hospital Staff

Dr. Kenney practiced medicine until his early death in 1950, at the age of 67. His advocacy for African-American health care providers in the VA would be continued by his son, Dr. Howard W. Kenney. After serving as the director of the Tuskegee VA Hospital from 1959 to 1962, Dr. Howard W. Kenney was appointed the first African-American director of a VA hospital not originally designated for only African-American patients.

One of his granddaughters, Linda Kenney Miller, wrote a novel in 2008, based on Dr. Kenney’s life entitled, Beacon on the Hill.

Linda Kenney Miller with Beacon on the Hill

The Community Hospital is now the site of the New Salem Baptist Church.

New Salem Baptist Church

Through his vision, courage and determination, Dr. Kenney was a major contributor to the creation and development of African-American organized medicine, the founding of African-American hospitals and the training and employment of African-American nurses.  We owe him a debt of gratitude.

Sources: NPR, BlackAmericaWeb, Old Newark, Veterans Association, Linda Kenney Miller, Google Images


  1. What a fine noble career. I looked him up because his American Academy of Dermatology medal came into my hands- no one knew who to belonged to, or cared.

    1. Great story!
      The medal from the Academy of Dermatology probably belonged to his son, Dr. John A. Kenney Jr. He was considered the dean of black dermatology.

  2. Hi Eric,

    It's sad that no one cared, but very cool that you have his medal. I'm sure that his granddaughter, who wrote the book (see above) would be interested in hearing from you.


  3. Dr John Kenney, who lived in the Ludlow (Shaker Heights, Ohio) area was the dermatologist. I remember when the family moved to Washington, D. C.. The son of Dr. Kenney, Jr. became a professor at Howard University. I went to school with the Kenney kids. Great article. I never knew about their grandfather.