African tradition holds that there is a library within every living elder. Then there is the extraordinary repository that is Dr. Arthur C. Thornhill.
Recently, a troupe of African-American youngsters age 7 to 17 discovered a treasure of history and humanity in the 102-year-old doctor from Montclair. And under the direction of Dr. Byerte W. Johnson, organist at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, the young performers will present ”The Story of Dr.
Arthur C. Thornhill” during the ”Proud Moments in African-American History” program at the church on Feb. 14.
Throughout his life, Dr. Thornhill has defied the odds. Surpassing the century mark is an obvious achievement. Perhaps not so obvious to a generation that grew up laughing along with Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable is his professional accomplishment.
Dr. Thornhill became a physician in an era when blacks were neither encouraged nor expected to enter medicine; when they did, they practiced only on members of their own race and often in separate hospitals. Nonetheless, from 1923 to 1973, Dr. Thornhill had a successful general practice here.
Besides tending to blacks in Montclair, Dr. Thornhill also fought for civil rights through involvement in Democratic politics. As for his personal life, he set down his own family roots in Montclair, marrying Ella Helene Foggo, who passed away in 1956. They raised a daughter who went on to be the only black student in her freshman class at Mount Holyoke College. He married his second wife, Elouise Yearwood, in 1958.
”The man’s life was not a bed of roses,” said Dr. Johnson, director of music and fine and performing arts at Jamas Children’s University in East Orange. ”Yet, he always treated people with love. He had high moral standards and was serious about his work.”
Dr. Johnson and a friend, Juanita Patience Moss, have produced the Proud Moments program for the past 20 years. They started it, explained Dr. Johnson, to fill ”a need to bring more African-American culture to our children through music and dance.” But cultural enrichment is only one facet of her mission; she believes in encouraging others ”to rearrange their priorities to include the sacred.”
In her own life, she has practiced what she preaches, last year adding a Ph.D in philosophy and religion to her honorary doctorate in music and three master’s degrees. Besides her work at Jamas, a private elementary school that includes African-American history in its core curriculum, she teaches voice, piano, organ, English handbells, and symphonic chimes, and is the music director for the Third
Westminster Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth.
Her programs originally focused on historic figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. But in 1997, she chose to represent the life of Hortense R. Tate of Montclair, who will be 100 on March 9.
To prepare this year’s program, Dr. Johnson met with Dr. Thornhill — a longtime member of St. Mark’s congregation — at his home on Irving Street once a week last fall. She would write down her questions for the doctor, who has lost his hearing. His daughter, Frances T. Morris, an office supervisor for H & R Block, helped fill in the details. Using their recollections, Dr. Johnson wrote the script for the actors, most of whom are students of hers or members of St. Mark’s.
Rehearsals, held at Dr. Johnson’s home each Saturday night, have been lively affairs, with refreshments in the dining room and laughter in the air. Like everyone’s favorite teacher, Dr. Johnson knows how to tease excellence out of her charges. She encourages the adults and children alike to embellish the script with actions and dialogue the characters might have expressed. She has gathered mementos from Dr.
Thornhill’s home and office for props, and has cajoled people who were part of his life, like Bertie Casey, his secretary from 1949 to 1972, to make cameo appearances.
Dr. Johnson also advertised in the local newspaper for all ”Thornhill babies” delivered by the doctor to take part in the event.
”We’ve heard from Thornhill babies as far away as Virginia,’ she says. Phyllis Harrell-Scott, for instance, will sing one of the doctor’s favorite hymns. She and the Baroque Chorale, which Dr. Johnson conducts, will be accompanied on piano by Jeremy Johnson, director of development at the Performing Arts Center in Newark.
The fact that Dr. Thornhill is not widely known outside his community did not deter Dr. Johnson from selecting him as a role model. ”It’s important that the children see that behind every successful person there is a period of struggle,” she said.
Fifteen-year-old Jason Graves, who plays Dr. Thornhill from young adult to the present, said: ”He did a lot in a time when he wasn’t supposed to do a lot. But he overcame the odds. He practiced in a time full of racism — and he overcame that — and a time when they would need black doctors because of segregation. His role then was important, and it’s even more important now.”
Born on June 12, 1896, in Barbados, Arthur Thornhill came to Montclair in 1908, at age 12, shortly after his mother died. His father, already in the United States, was a carpenter who turned to domestic work when he was denied membership in the building trade unions because he was black, his daughter said.
The younger Mr. Thornhill graduated from Montclair High in 1916.
He worked his way through Howard University and the medical school, where he graduated in 1922. His interest in medicine, said Mrs. Morris, probably stemmed from the fact that his mother died so young and that a brother died of appendicitis at 13.
Dr. Thornhill returned to Montclair to establish a general practice, and eventually became affiliated with Kenney Memorial Hospital in Newark, later renamed Community Hospital. Founded in 1927 by Dr.
John A. Kenney, who for many years was the personal physician to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, Kenney was the state’s first all-black hospital.
Dr. Thornhill also involved himself in local politics, becoming chairman of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Association, a black Democratic organization. ”He’s always been with the underdog,’ his daughter said. During World War II, he was among a delegation that met with Roosevelt to ask that factories engaged in defense work hire more blacks. ”The United States is the land of opportunity,” Dr. Thornhill says. ”If you don’t grasp it, it’s your own fault.”
After World War II, Dr. Thornhill was admitted to the staff of Mountainside Hospital in Montclair. ”It was such a pleasure to work with him,” recalled Dr. Anthony Caggiano Jr., who became an attending physician at Mountainside in 1970 and is now president of its medical staff. Dr. Thornhill never spoke of his obstacles, Dr. Caggiano said. ”He was just concerned about his patients. Even if he’d already referred them to a specialist, he would come and visit and make sure things were going well.”
Throughout his career, Dr. Thornhill remained active as a member of the Essex County Welfare Board and the local African-American YMCA. Though unsuccessful in a bid for state Assembly, he helped Matthew Carter win his campaign to become Montclair’s first black town commissioner and mayor, his daughter said. Behind the scenes, she added, her father championed the aspirations of friends and patients, always willing to write letters of recommendation.
Andromeda Turre, 17, a dancer in next Sunday’s program, summed up the affection for Dr. Thornhill this way: ”He’s not someone who everyone in the world knows about, yet he contributed a lot to our society and to the black community in Montclair. He didn’t get a lot of recognition for it, but that’s what this is for; to give him recognition after so many years of service.’