Karen Jordan, the great-granddaughter of Dr. John Henry Jordan, was the guest speaker for the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society’s February lecture series.
The son of slaves, John Henry (March 11, 1870-Sept. 16, 1912) became Coweta County’s first Black doctor. After serving as a physician in his hometown of Hogansville, he built the first hospital for Black patients in the Chalk Level Neighborhood on Pinson Street.
His great-granddaughter Karen, co-founder of EmmGerri skincare and a filmmaker and writer, has continuously worked to keep the legacy of her family alive and known.
Karen is originally from Nashville, is an author and a former television and print reporter. She is also a cum laude graduate of Wellesley College and has a master’s degree from Stanford University.
She is writing a book based on her great-grandfather, John Henry, and her father, Dr. Harold Jordan.
John Henry’s early life
Karen said Dr. John Henry Jordan was born in Hogansville, Georgia, in March of 1870. He was his father’s second son, and both of his parents had been slaves.
“When John Henry was born, it was a very exciting time in America for the former slaves because reconstruction had been enacted,” Karen said. “Which meant for the first time these former slaves actually had rights.”
She said by the time John Henry was 7 or 8 years old, reconstruction had ended. He decided at a young age that he wanted to have a better life, even if he didn’t quite know how to do it.
When he was 11, he met Dr. Edward Ramsey, who would become his mentor. Ramsey relocated to Troup County in 1880 after graduating from Meharry Medical College.
Ramsey’s father owned a lot of land in Troup County, and helped him through medical school. Karen said John Henry learned a lot from Ramsey.
After finishing school in Troup County, John Henry moved to Atlanta and enrolled at Clark College to gain the requirements to go to medical school.
“He loved math and science, he was actually taught by one of Dr. Ramsey’s former professors, and they helped guide him to fill out the application to get to Meharry Medical College,” Karen said.
When John Henry arrived in 1891, Meharry was known as the Meharry Medical Department at Central Tennessee College. It was the second Black medical school established in the U.S. after Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C.
Karen said Meharry was started by the United Methodist Church, which was the church John Henry grew up in. All the students were required to attend chapel every Sunday – they had strict rules and had to wear suits to class.
“There was a lot demanded of those students because there was a lot riding on them,” Karen said. “This was the first generation to be educated from slavery, so his classmates consisisted of former slaves and slave’s descendents, as he was.”
She said most medical schools at that time had three-year programs, and John Henry had worked hard to earn enough money to go to school for three years. In his third year, Meharry decided to follow a new trend, to make medical school four years.
“John Henry was devastated because he couldn’t afford to stay in school any longer than three years, so he was forced to drop out,” Karen said.
Karen said John Henry did all he knew to do, and found menial work. He was able to save up and return to school and graduated in 1896. John Henry was very good at surgery, and received a student surgical award at graduation.
“After all of that hype and fanfare, he arrived back at his hometown in Georgia, disappointed by his reception,” Karen said. “It was hard for him to find patients in Hogansville. Everyone in Hogansville was accustomed to him being the little John Henry that they knew growing up; they couldn’t imagine him being a doctor who could treat them.”
Move to Coweta
After living in Hogansville for a couple of years, he decided to relocate, and found out that Coweta County didn’t have a Black doctor.
At the same time, he began courting Dr. Ramsey’s daughter, Mollie. In 1898 they were married, and they moved to Newnan where he set up shop.
“It was a very exciting time for him,” Karen said. “Not only was he married, but his medical practice began to flourish.”
Karen said when they moved to the county in 1898, there was a lot of racism. The lynching of Sam Hose in Newnan happened around the same time.
“There was a lot of racial tension at that time,” Karen said.
John Henry saw many patients, and Mollie became pregnant. Their first child died in infancy, but their second child, Edward, was born in 1900.
“He soon began to integrate medicine in Newnan, seeing white patients for the first time,” Karen said.
John Henry built the first Black hospital in Coweta County next to his house at 61 Pinson St. Karen said he didn’t just want to treat his patients illnesses and diseases, but he wanted to practice preventative health care.
Karen said he educated his patients about proper hygiene and the connection between hygiene and good health. He also taught them financial lessons, to help former slaves buy land.
John Henry kept a medical journal that had a record of all of his patients. His wife, Mollie, was college educated and helped him maintain the journal. However, Karen said the medical journal has been lost over time.
Their family attended Newnan Chapel United Methodist Church. Karen said Mollie started a Christian Savings club for women from her church and her friends that met regularly about saving money and finances.
John Henry had acquired many patients and needed some help. In 1911, he recruited another Black doctor, Millard McWhorter.
Around 1912, John Henry began drafting plans for the first Black library in Coweta County. Karen said in September of 1912, he was involved in a suspicious car accident, and he died 36 hours later after being fatally burned.
“His dreams of opening the first Black library went up in flames with him,” Karen said.
Years later, McWhorter delivered her father, Harold Jordan, in the house on Pinson Street.
John Henry’s legacy
Karen said her father grew up hearing stories about his grandfather all the time. When he was in high school, he and his family participated in the dedication ceremony for the John Jordan Homes, Newnan’s first public housing development.
John Henry and his wife, Mollie, are buried in Eastview Cemetery in Newnan.
Karen said she’s completed a draft of her book based on John Henry and her father, Dr. Harold Jordan. It’s not published yet, but she’s working on edits and revisions.
“When you get that book done, please let us know, because we definitely want to promote it and have it at the Historical Society for people to come purchase,” said NCHS Executive Director Emily Kimbell.
A video about the Jordan family is available on YouTube .