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Chasing History: Why The Death of Dr. Charles R. Drew Should Stir Us All

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

During my research for a forthcoming film, I ran into the brilliance of Dr. Charles Richard Drew. He is known for his research on blood banks and blood transfusions. As a prominent African American physician during the time of World War II, he protested against racial discrimination of blood donations, and resigned from his position at the American Red Cross. Although this is his research legacy I was drawn to his leadership at Freedman's hospital and Howard University.

photo via Wikipedia.

Dr. Drew. was born June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. to Richard and Nora Burrell. He graduated from Dunbar High School, then attended Amherst College in Massachusetts on an athletic scholarship. After many setbacks he began his medical training at McGill University in Quebec, Canada. This is where he started his research on blood transfusions. He graduated from McGill in 1933. He went on to become an instructor of pathology at Howard University in 1935, also working as a surgeon at the adjoining Freedman's Hospital. This is where my research intersected with him and when I learned the facts about his untimely death.

His Untimely Death

As legend tells it, on April 1, 1950 Dr. Drew was en route to speak at a conference being held at Tuskegee University in Alabama with four other persons. While driving on N.C. 49 in Alamance County, north of Burlington, Dr. Drew fell asleep at the wheel. They would have an unfortunate accident that would kill only Dr. Drew. Soon after the accident a controversial rumor and community stir began; the most prominent scientist known for his research on blood transfusions would die due to injuries as a result of blood loss; not because he could not get a transfusion, but because Alamance General Hospital refused to admit him due to him being black. Without a doubt I was stirred to the bone.

Off NC Route 49 near Burlington
Historical Marker of Dr. Charles R. Drew

However, there is more to the story. Further history revealed that the rumor was not true. An account by Stan Swofford that included interviews from Drew's family members and those who were in the car helped set the record straight. Drew was admitted to Alamance General and was treated but could not be saved. There is definitely a lesson learned.

As a grassroots historian I have found that legends can be inaccurate, especially with the addition of time. However, when a group of people have a history of physical and mental abuse due to their racial identity it can be easy to believe more of what is already being lived. It is important to also note that although the ultimate cause of Dr. Drew's death was a car accident, his falling asleep at the wheel was probably due to the south not allowing blacks to sleep in hotels along the way.

Racism continues to permeate in the crevices of our daily lives, directly and indirectly thus causing accidents seen and unseen. It is important that we amplify bias and injustice when we see it, it just might save a life.

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