Dr.Raleigh J. Coker (1885-1953)
One of the most difficult tasks for black physicians living in the Jim Crow South was their ability to attract patients of their own race. Since they were excluded from treating whites; black physicians had to compete with midwives, folk healers, patent medicines, and white doctors for patients. Having been shut out of segregated hospitals, office buildings, and medical societies (click here for more info). These doctors often had to treat patients in inferior facilities. Many prosperous blacks often preferred white doctors since many thought they were better trained and operated better facilities. Of course, white doctors were usually more than willing to attend to them as long as they could pay. As a result, black physicians had to find other means to attract patients into their care.
One means of attracting patients was to enter into contracts with insurance agencies. In 1906, the state of Louisiana passed a law defining insurance companies as organizations with agents to collect weekly premiums and issue policy contracts. However, since most people of color were unable to afford ordinary life and health insurance policies, and white companies were unwilling to insure them at the same rates as whites, this created an excellent opportunity (click here) for black entrepreneurs in the South.
For a small weekly premium, black insurance companies could afford their clients benefits for sickness, accidents, and death. These insurance companies were a source of racial pride since they were black-owned businesses in the South and its agents were black professionals or semi-professionals. By 1930 there were nine life insurance companies opened by people of color in New Orleans, employing 72 percent of the city’s black office workers.
Such was the case with Dr. Raleigh J. Coker. He was hired by The Unity Industrial Life Insurance Company throughout the 1920s to be medical director of its New Orleans health clinics. In view of the high mortality rate among infants, the company decided to expand clinic services in Algiers and several other cities with Dr. Coker and a registered nurse, Mrs. Alice Bachemin, as his assistant.
These clinics were opened weekly to policyholders and non-policy holders alike. While they focused largely on health education and preventive medicine- especially for expectant mothers and young children- they also treated minor injuries, ailments, and provided free vaccinations. Free clinics run by insurance agencies, of course, had an ulterior motive- to attract new clients- but they still provided a necessary service to those who needed it.
Ads in The Louisiana Weekly listed the Unity Insurance Building as being located at 535 South Rampart Street with branches at 2017 Dryades Street, 1016 North Claiborne Avenue, and throughout the state.
Mrs. Alice Bachemin (1885-1963)
Throughout his medical career, Dr. Coker always had Mrs. Alice V. Bachemin, a registered nurse, as his assistant. They were also close neighbors both living at 1415 and 1421 Dumaine Street for many years.
Dr. Raleigh Coker was born in New Orleans about 1885 to Dr. J. H. Coker and Pauline Boutte Coker. His siblings were Maude, Ethel, Ruth, Thurman and Byron Coker. Raleigh Coker attended primary grades in N.O. Public Schools and classes at New Orleans, Southern and Walden Universities, before graduating from Meharry Medical College of Tennessee in 1909. He married Emily Allen who passed away in 1932. He later married Idell Duplessis and raised an adopted daughter, Miss Antonia Bossier.
Alice Bachemin (1885- 1963) was also born in New Orleans and became a registered nurse. She married Alfred Bachemin and had one daughter, Vera Bachemin, who later married Arnold Rillieux. Vera and Arnold had one biological daughter together, Janine Rillieux Sylve. They also raised Marguerite Rillieux Parent, Arnold’s daughter from a previous marriage to Carmen Rillieux, who died in childbirth. Alice died just 2 months after her daughter, Vera, on 23 Nov. of 1963.
Besides Unity Industrial, Dr. Coker was also appointed Medical Examiner of National Industrial from 1924- 1928 and Supreme Life Insurance in the 1940s. Statistics in the 1930s showed that out of every 1,000 live births, there were 45 deaths among babies within the first month, which later increased to nearly 100 in the first year. This appalling mortality rate demonstrated the great need for education and training of mothers during pregnancy and after the birth of the child.
One of the most important events to the medical profession in New Orleans was the opening of Flint- Goodridge Hospital in 1932 (click here). Its importance cannot be overstated. It was here where Dr. Coker and other black physicians were provided with a place to treat their patients. Black physicians controlled Flint Hospital. They were on all committees, were provided with continuing educational training and served in total capacities as doctors.
“Well- Baby” Clinic/ Flint- Goodridge Hospital (1939)
It was here that Dr. Coker, along with sixteen other physicians, served on the gynecology and obstetrics staff of the hospital. Here, babies were delivered by physicians instead of midwives. Since the infant-mortality rate throughout Louisiana in the 1930s was 54 per-cent higher among Negro babies than white ones, mothers were encouraged to bring their babies to the “well-baby” clinic at Flint each month for inspection and advice.
A hired social worker organized mothers’ clinical visits and saw to it that every baby born on the hospital’s wards returned to the “well-baby clinic” once a month for one year for general observations and proper instructions to the mother as to the proper care of her child.
Dr. Coker was just an example of all those black physicians who struggled under very harsh conditions to serve their people at a very critical time in our history. I salute them for the work they did and hope this article will help to instill to all our readers the important contributions they made throughout our communities.
For further reading, I highly recommend Thomas J. Ward’s book, “Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South” published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2003.
Sources: Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South, Thomas J. Ward (2003); Amistad Research Center, Dent Family Papers & Am. Missionary Assn. Records; The Baltimore Afro-American, 17 Jan. 1931 p. 18; The Times- Picayune, 20 March 1953; The Louisiana Weekly 11 June 1932 p.1 + 18 January 1936 p.1 + 21 March 1953; Philadelphia Tribune, 1 March 1928 p.14. (A special thanks to Melvin Parent for providing information on Alice Bachemin, his step great- grandmother and on Dr. Raleigh Coker)
Lolita V. Cherrie