Joyous musical expression, activism, and medicine.
Our enjoyment and appreciation of gospel music owes so much to Ethel Caffie-Austin. And the careers, more than a century apart, of Martin Robison Delany and John Clavon Norman Jr. mark the advancement of Black contributors to the field of medicine. In our fourth and last Black History Month post, read about these accomplished West Virginians and be inspired.
West Virginia’s First Lady of Gospel Music was a musical prodigy, accompanying church services on the keyboard at the age of 9 and directing the choir at 11. She graduated from West Virginia Technical Institute and later moved to Charleston, where she worked as a pianist, vocalist, and educator and took her music ministry into schools, prisons, and community centers. Caffie-Austin’s performances and recordings brought her an international reputation, and her many friendships in the gospel community brought depth to the Black Sacred Music Festival she founded in 1990. The festival was conducted annually at West Virginia State University in Institute through 2001, and a three-day event revived it on Marshall University’s campus in 2018.
Caffee-Austin was the subject of the 1999 documentary His Eye is on the Sparrow. She was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2020—you can hear her joyful, resonant voice on the Hall of Fame’s website.
Martin Robison Delany
1812 Charles Town, Virginia–1885 Wilberforce, Ohio
Born a free person of color in Charles Town half a century before West Virginia was a state, Martin Delany was raised in Pennsylvania and trained and worked as a physician assistant in Pittsburgh. He seems to have been fearless in his dedication: during cholera epidemics in 1833 and 1854, he treated patients afflicted with the still–poorly understood disease when other medical professionals retreated.
But in 1850, Delany was one of the first three Black men admitted to Harvard Medical School then dismissed after protests by white students. Increasingly convinced that Blacks had no future in the United States, he moved for a time to Canada, helping the Underground Railroad there. Delany dreamed of establishing a settlement in West Africa, the ancestral home of his family, and, during a trip there, he signed agreements with indigenous chiefs. But when the Civil War broke out, he decided to work for emancipation, recruiting for the United States Colored Troops and becoming the first African American field grade officer in the U.S. Army.
After the war, Delany lived in South Carolina. He worked to better the lives of freed Blacks and launched a stormy political career amid growing voter suppression. In the late 1870s, he helped lead a renewed movement to organize emigration to Africa, although he soon left that work to support his children’s college careers in Ohio.
An influential abolitionist and author, Delany has been called The Father of African Nationalism. The West Virginia Legislature passed a resolution in 2017 to name the new bridge carrying West Virginia Route 9 over the Shenandoah River the “Major Martin Robison Delany Memorial Bridge.”
John Clavon Norman Jr.
1930 Charleston–2014 Bedford, Massachusetts
John C. Norman graduated valedictorian of his high school class in Charleston and entered Howard University at age 16. He earned an M.D. from Harvard Medical School at a time when, more than a century after Marvin Delany’s admission to the school was revoked (see above), few Blacks still were admitted to white medical schools. He served in the U.S. Navy, then joined the surgical staff at Boston City Hospital and became involved in transplant research. Seated by chance during a 1971 flight beside the founder of the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, he was invited over the course of the flight to establish a research laboratory at the Texas Heart Institute—and so became the founding director of THI’s Cullen Cardiovascular Surgical Research Laboratories. There, he conducted important research into heart assistance and replacement and established the forerunner of the Texas Heart Institute Journal. Feeling in the early 1980s that his work at THI had run its course, Norman took a position on the surgical staff at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in New Jersey, and then, in 1986, returned to West Virginia to head the surgery department at the Marshall University School of Medicine. He later took positions in Chicago and in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Over the course of his career, Norman wrote or contributed to several textbooks and more than 700 scholarly articles. He served as an adviser to the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation and testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the adequacy of funding for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
In 1971, Norman was named West Virginian of the Year by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. For his research breakthroughs, he received the 1985 Congressional High Technology Award.