Pharmacy Residency (PGY1)

Born at Parkland during segregation; doctor now medical staff president

Born at Parkland during segregation; doctor now medical staff president

Dr. James Griffin is the first African American to hold the position

Born in an era of segregation and deep racial separatism, James Griffin’s career came full circle when he became the first African American to serve as the President of the medical staff at Parkland Health, the very place he was born. The recognition comes after more than 40 years of unending devotion to what he believes to be the greatest form of human connection there is, providing care.

As he reflects on his past and where his journey began, born in the same institution decades later he would walk the halls as a respected leader, it’s remarkable to see the path Dr. Griffin has forged for himself and those who look like him. When he was born in 1958, Parkland was one of the only hospitals in the area where Black women could deliver. Now, serving at that same hospital, the significance of this recognition is deeply personal to him.

“Until I became a second grader, my parents couldn’t vote. So being elected by my peers connects me back to a point in time where people like me did not have a voice,” said Dr. Griffin, chief of anesthesiology services at Parkland and professor of anesthesiology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “In order to get here, I had to be voted in by a number of physicians who didn’t look like me. To me that paints a broad picture of where we have advanced in just one lifetime.”

At the time of his birth, Parkland had segregated maternity wards. And because there were very few hospitals in the region that would allow Black patients to deliver in their hospital, Parkland was a significant “social” safety net provider all those years ago, just as it remains today, according to Dr. Griffin.

During that period, Parkland employees both Black and white worked side-by-side, but ate in segregated cafeterias, used segregated restrooms and drank from separate water fountains. A wall existed in the lobby, dividing visitors by race. This ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, publicly owned facilities and federally funded programs.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, this brought an end to segregation at Parkland, meaning patients were no longer required to stand in separate lines based on their skin color.

When looking back on the mentors and lessons that helped him arrive at this moment, Dr. Griffin recounted early memories with his own family physician and historical Dallas figure, Dr. George Lee Shelton. In June 1954, Dr. Shelton joined four other men to make history in becoming the first Black doctors to practice at St. Paul Hospital and integrate the facility. “I had a model of what a physician could look like, and I had no doubt that it could be someone like me,” Dr. Griffin said.

When asked what sparked his passion for healthcare, Dr. Griffin answered, “I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, I’m not sure where it came from.” Later in life he found out his father aspired to be a physician as well, but the social construct of the ‘50s did not allow his parents the same opportunities he had in his lifetime. His parents were educators and education was paramount to him and his sister.

In a way, Dr. Griffin says, education has been the hallmark of his academic career, providing leadership as Director of Medical Student and Resident Education at UT Southwestern for two decades and currently as the Associate Chair of the Admissions Committee at UT Southwestern.

After ending his formal workday comprised of multiple leadership roles and a myriad of responsibilities to both health systems, Dr. Griffin still makes time for the people who matter most, his family. Every day, he visits his 95-year-old mother in the same house he grew up in. “Sometimes it may be for five minutes sometimes it may be hours, but every day I visit her and go back into the community in South Dallas where I came from.”

Dr. Griffin recognizes his responsibility to his patients, knowing that it must be in the context of socially conscious and compassionate care. “Even though we overcame those obvious social barriers we had in the ‘50s, they still exist and represent themselves differently today. Parkland is still that bridge that makes it possible for our patients to overcome the social, economic and environmental circumstances they were placed into,” he said.

And he hopes to continue to engrain that sense of responsibility into his medical staff.

“As a medical staff member, you are not only a leader of clinician and non-clinician members of our healthcare delivery team, but you are also a leader on our campus and our delivery system,” Dr. Griffin said in his introductory statement to the medical staff. “Parkland is the foundation of a vibrant countywide healthcare network that consists of many types of healthcare delivery entities. Because of our position in this system, we have received unwavering support from the taxpayers of Dallas County. We earn that support every day and for that, I gladly give each of one of my medical staff members my respect and gratitude.”

For more information about Parkland services, visit www.parklandhealth.org.

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