History & Heritage: Dr. John Kenney’s healing and hope, from Tuskegee to Montclair
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history. It will be written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center, and has been official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
There was a time, not so long ago, that Montclair had three hospitals: Community, Mountainside and St. Vincent’s. Most people remember them. Mountainside is the only one left. There was a time that people are starting to forget; a time when African-American doctors were not allowed to practice in those hospitals.
This was the case in 1926 when Dr. John Kenney, his wife, Frieda Armstrong Kenney, and his children moved into 34 Irving St. in Montclair.
Dr. Kenney was born in Virginia in 1875. His parents had been slaves. He graduated, first in his class, from Hampton Institute (now University). He studied medicine at the Leonard Medical School, Shaw University.
He interned at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1902 Booker T. Washington invited him to head the clinic at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He became the personal physician to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. As Tuskegee grew, so did the need for more sophisticated medical care. Dr. Kenney headed the campaign to raise money for a new hospital. In 1912, he became head of the medical staff at the brand new John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital at Tuskegee. The new hospital boasted both black and white doctors.
After World War I, the Veterans Administration built a hospital in the town of Tuskegee. It was primarily for the care of African-American veterans, but it was staffed only by white doctors. Dr. Kenney petitioned for an integrated staff. The Ku Klux Klan threatened to kill him. He and his family managed to escape hours before the KKK torched a cross on his property and burned down his home. In 1922 Dr. Kenney and his family arrived in Newark. Ironically, Dr. Kenney’s son Howard became a doctor later and became the head of the very same VA hospital that had caused so much trouble for the Kenney family.
In New Jersey, Dr. Kenney discovered that African-American doctors could have patients of their own, but had to turn them over to white doctors if they were admitted to any hospital. Dr. Kenney found himself at the head of a fund-raising drive again. With a combination of some donations and mostly his own money Dr. Kenney opened a 30-bed hospital on West Kinney Street in Newark, the Kenney Memorial Hospital, which was named to honor his parents, in 1927.
The hospital had a small staff, including other disenfranchised African-American doctors, like Dr. Walter Darden. He also lived in Montclair. He had met Dr. Kenney when he was interning at the John A. Andrew Hospital at Tuskegee. Dr. Darden was also forced North by the Klan. With such a small staff Dr. Kenney had to do almost everything himself. He would treat patients then go downstairs to wash the linens. Frieda Kenney managed the hospital kitchen. In 1934 after struggling to keep the hospital open, Dr. Kenney formed the Booker T. Washington Medical Association and gave the hospital to the association. It became Newark Community Hospital. He remained head of the medical staff and chief surgeon until 1939, when he returned to Tuskegee.
The Kenneys did not stay in Alabama long. They came back to Montclair in 1944. They moved into a larger house at 39 Madison Ave. Dr. Kenney set up his practice in his home. He shared space with his son John A. Jr., who was also a doctor. Dr. Kenney Sr. practiced medicine right up until his death in 1950. The Kenneys were a medical family. Two sons, John A. Jr. and Howard, were doctors. The daughter, Harriet Kenney Quisenberry, worked with Dr. Bousfield, who became president of the National Medical Association, the association for African-American doctors, founded by her father in 1909. Oscar Kenney, the middle son, was one of the Tuskegee Airmen. He was killed in action in World War II. Frieda Kenney was the first African-American woman to graduate from Boston University. She taught there.
In an odd turn of events, she almost lost her life to the “black plague” of tuberculosis. She then became a Christian Scientist. She continued to love and support her family, even though she no longer shared their faith in modern medicine.
Although Dr. Kenney never did get to practice in any of Montclair’s hospitals, he showed strength and perseverance in the face of adversity, which became the bedrock for other African-American physicians to achieve that goal.