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Tennessee Doctor Changes Race Relations of Appalachian Town

Dr. Dennis Branch. Photo courtesy of Ebony magazine.

When Raleigh physician Dr. Dennis Branch announced plans to practice in Newport, TN, many cautioned against it. After all, Plessy v. Ferguson had mandated separate but equal facilities just 20 years prior and Rosa Parks, a would-be civil rights activist from Alabama, was still in diapers. In the early 20th century, sending a black man to an Appalachian tobacco town felt risky. “Mountain people don’t allow no Negroes up there,” friends told Branch.

He went nonetheless, arriving in Newport by train on October 10, 1914. With $600 and a leased space over Hick’s grocery store, Branch opened a small practice, providing care to yeoman farmers and white townsfolk during a time when segregation laws forbade interracial intimacy.

“The mountaineers gave Dr. Branch what they could— smoked hams and such—but, more importantly, they gave something of great value to him: sincere appreciation and a sense of authentic social acceptance,” says Marc McClure, a history professor at Walters State Community College in Morristown, TN.

On Saturday, June 16, at 2 p.m. in the UNC Asheville Reuter Center, McClure will present his documentary, Dr. Dennis Branch: An African American Physician in the Jim Crow South, 1914-1964. The program is sponsored by the Western North Carolina Historical Association and will be introduced by Jim Stokely, president of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy. Famous for their “firm pro-integration” stance—a progressive view in the mid-1950s—Stokely’s parents, Wilma Dykeman and James Stokely, published Neither Black Nor White in 1957. The text presents a wide spectrum of race relations across the South, showcasing anecdotes from Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers as well as Ku Klux Klan members.

It also includes an interview with Branch, who by then was “highly regarded for his ability to heal conditions that other doctors could not,” says McClure. A “force for good,” he served as interim principal of the Tanner School, a Rosenwald School built in 1924, and became a trustee of the historically black Morristown College. He was also the first president of The Tennessee Picnic, a communitywide homecoming event for African Americans in the Newport area.

His story resonated with readers of Neither Black Nor White, later garnering an article in Ebony and airtime on This Is Your Life, a documentary series hosted by Ralph Edwards.

Despite the passing of time, Stokely believes Branch’s narrative is as relevant as ever.

“Race is the defining issue of American history,” says Stokely. “As a nation, we have yet to resolve this issue, whether it be in relation to Native Americans, African Americans or Latinos. Knowing the truth—the triumphs and failings— about our past will help us deal with present conflicts.”

The UNC Asheville Reuter Center is located at 1 Campus View Road. Guests are asked to donate $5. Western North Carolina Historical Association members attend for free. To learn more, call 828.253.9231 or visit wnchistory.org.

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