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Session 4: Uplifting Community

The Death of Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Charles Drew wasn’t born in North Carolina, and he never lived here. But Drew died in North Carolina, and the story of his death has become one of the most frequently told legends of our time. But the legend doesn’t tell what really happened.

To understand the legend, you have to know something about the man.

Charles Drew died at the height of his career as chief of surgery at Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. But his main fame stemmed from his efforts to develop a medical procedure that has saved millions of lives. In 1940 the Second World War thundered in Europe. Doctors on both sides of the Atlantic desperately sought ways to preserve blood so they could store it for transfusions. Drew was one of the scientists who figured out how to bank large quantities of blood.

In 1941 Drew created the model for a national blood collection program for the Red Cross. You can imagine how he felt when the Red Cross announced that African Americans could not donate blood. After a public outcry against this policy, the Red Cross accepted black donors but segregated the contributed blood, at the insistence of the United States Army. Drew protested against this new policy. “There is no scientific basis for the separation of the bloods of different races except on the basis of the individual blood types or groups,” he declared. 



The United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Charles Drew in 1981 as part of its Black History series.


In the early hours of April 1, 1950, Drew was driving with three other doctors to a medical conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. Drew apparently dozed off at the wheel on North Carolina Highway 49 in Alamance County. He ran the car off the road and was badly injured. An ambulance carried Drew to Alamance County General Hospital, where he received emergency care. His injuries proved fatal, however, and he died just over an hour later.

A Tragedy Compounded by Legend 
It happened one April day while he and three other doctors were driving to attend a medical conference at a southern university. Near Burlington, N.C., their automobile swerved to avoid an object in the road. Drew was critically injured and began to lose blood rapidly.

His colleagues flagged down a passing car and rushed him to the nearest hospital. At the door, he was turned away. It was a “whites-only” institution.

By the time he was taken to a nearby “colored hospital,” Dr. Charles Drew, the man who developed the theory of blood plasma and pioneered the blood bank, had bled to death.

His death highlighted the racial segregation which then existed in most southern hospitals, and still clings to many today.

—Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, in the Amsterdam News, 1964

This well-known legend of Charles Drew’s death never happened.

  • None of Drew’s companions in the car remember swerving to avoid something in the road.
  • Drew arrived at the hospital in an ambulance.
  • Alamance County General Hospital doctors administered plasma to Drew in addition to giving other emergency treatment.
  • Drew did not die from loss of blood alone. The death certificate listed the conditions leading to his death as “brain injury, internal hemorrhage—lungs and multiple extremities injuries.”
  • Alamance County General Hospital, though it segregated white and black patients, was not a “whites-only” institution and did not refuse Drew treatment.

Many versions of the legend circulate by word of mouth and in the media (click here to read some of the accounts). The mythical story even made it into an episode of the television series M*A*S*H.

What’s True about a False Legend? 
Drew lived and died during the era of segregation, when African American southerners endured separate and unequal public facilities. Schools, libraries, restaurants, theaters, hotels, waiting rooms, rest rooms—even hospitals—separated whites and blacks.

Some people did die after being refused care at segregated hospitals. A few months after Drew’s death, Maltheus Avery, a World War II veteran and student at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University) in Greensboro, also had a car accident in Alamance County. He was sent to the same hospital as Drew, where he was stabilized and sent on to Duke Hospital in Durham, which could better care for his injuries. But Duke’s beds designated for African Americans were full, so the hospital sent him on to Lincoln Hospital, which served the black population. Avery died shortly after arriving at Lincoln, and his death set off a nationwide scandal.

Drew’s legend grew out of the social realities of his time. That a black pioneer in blood plasma research could bleed to death did not surprise many black Americans, who constantly experienced the pain of segregation. Though factually false, the Drew story spoke to a profound truth.

Legal segregation is gone. But it has not been forgotten, as continued tellings of this legend indicate. Efforts by Drew’s family, the American Red Cross, and professional historians to refute the legend have met with little success. Denials of a story’s truth are rarely as powerful as the legend itself.

Charles Drew Web Sites

Black History Now—Biography: Charles R. Drew
A detailed biography of Drew.

Charles R. Drew, 1904–1950, Blood Plasma Research
A brief biography of Drew appears on the website.

Drew Drawing Attention
This 1997 article from McGill University, Drew’s alma mater, discusses the renewed attention paid to Drew.

The Greensboro Four

On February 1, 1960, Franklin McCainEzell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, all freshmen on academic scholarships at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University), sat down at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. Their seemingly simple act was in fact a courageous effort to protest the racial injustice of southern segregation policies that began with the passage of Jim Crow laws in 1898.

The idea for the sit-in was born the night before the protest began. McNeil had recently been refused service at a diner in Greensboro’s bus terminal. He related his anger about the incident to close friends McCain, Blair, and Richmond in their dormitory. The four, who had discussed the problem of racial injustice many times before, decided it was time to stop complaining and act. They agreed to stage a sit-in, a type of peaceful demonstration originating in the 1870s that had been taken up again in the late 1950s. “We didn’t want to set the world on fire. We just wanted to eat,” said Khazan in a 2000 interview.

The students debated the potential sites of their sit-in. Many came to mind, as most public places in Greensboro were segregated. They chose the F. W. Woolworth store, where African American patrons could shop and eat at a stand-up snack bar but were prohibited from eating at the lunch counter. The lunch counter staff itself was segregated: the waitresses were white; the food preparers and the cleaners, black.

The students, soon to be known across the country as the Greensboro Four, hardly slept that night, fearing they would be beaten, arrested, or even killed for their actions. They attended classes the next day, then met at Woolworth’s in the late afternoon. Splitting up in pairs, they bought toothpaste and school supplies. When they sat down at the lunch counter, they expected trouble but encountered silence instead. A waitress told them that blacks weren’t served at the counter. They placed their orders anyway, whereupon the store manager asked them to leave. When the group remained seated, the manager contacted the Greensboro police chief, who said that he could do nothing as long as they remained quiet. The store closed early, and the four students left peacefully, elated by their experience.

“I can’t even describe it,” said McCain in a 2000 interview. “Never have I experienced such an incredible emotion, such an uplift.”

That night they called together leaders of student groups to rally support for their cause. Many agreed to attend a sit-in the next day.

Only two students joined two of the original four (McNeil and McCain) at the Woolworth lunch counter the next morning, but by afternoon there were more than twenty. Although heckled by whites, the students, who had by now attracted the local press, left unharmed. More students joined the demonstration each day. Soon African American students from other colleges—and some white students—were participating. When the lunch counter was full, the students picketed outside Woolworth’s and began a second sit-in at S. H. Kress, another five-and-dime store in downtown Greensboro. The protest’s leaders received telephoned threats nightly but persevered, encouraged by the ever increasing support they were receiving.

In response to the demonstrations, local white teenagers and Ku Klux Klan members vied with the demonstrators for seats at Woolworth’s lunch counter. As tensions in Greensboro mounted, a telephone threat, warning that a bomb had been placed in the store’s basement, forced Woolworth’s to close on February 6; Kress’s also closed that day. No bomb was found, and the students temporarily ended their peaceful protest.

Students in other North Carolina cities, meanwhile, had adopted the sit-in. One week after the Greensboro protest began, African American students in Winston-Salem and Durham began sit-ins at local lunch counters. Demonstrations followed in Charlotte and Raleigh. By the end of the week, sit-ins had spread to other states in the South, and supporters of the movement were picketing Woolworth stores in the North. 

The Greensboro Four's sit-in paved the way for Civil Rights protests throughout the South. These young people are demonstrating in Chapel Hill in 1964. 

The Greensboro Woolworth’s finally desegregated its lunch counter on July 25, 1960, six months after the first sit-in. The first African Americans served were the lunch counter employees themselves. In the first week, three hundred African Americans were served; no one protested.

The Greensboro Four achieved quick fame for their actions and were besieged with requests for interviews. All four remained active in the Civil Rights movement throughout college. Franklin McCain received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology from the university in 1964. He joined Celanese Corporation in Charlotte as a chemist in 1965 and remained there until his retirement. Jibreel Khazan earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1963. Today, he lives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he works with the developmentally disabled and is active in community projects. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics in 1963, Joseph McNeil served in the United States Air Force and worked as an investment banker before joining the Federal Aviation Administration. Recently retired as a major general in the air force reserves, he lives in Hempstead, New York. David Richmond, who worked as a counselor and later a housekeeping porter, died in 1990. 

This historical marker outside the former F. W. Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro commemorates the 1960 sit-ins. Courtesy of

McCain, Khazan, and McNeil reunite for sit-in anniversaries and special events. On February 2, 2002, they appeared together at the unveiling of a statue honoring the Greensboro Four on the A&T campus. Even now, they remain modest about their legendary actions.

“Like many others,” says McNeil, “we are proud to have been able to contribute.”

Sit-In Legends 
Many stories have arisen about the Greensboro sit-ins, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Read how the Greensboro Four dispelled some common legends about their actions in these 1997 interviews.

The Symbol Becomes a Legend 
When William Yeingst, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, learned in October 1993 that the F. W. Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro was scheduled to close, he saw a great opportunity. Determined to preserve an important symbol of the Civil Rights movement, Yeingst, along with fellow curator Lonnie Bunch, worked quickly to convince the Woolworth Corporation to donate to the museum the section of lunch counter occupied by the Greensboro Four on February 1, 1960. Writing in the Smithsonian Institution’s on-line magazine Increase usion, Yeingst recalls, “We cast our interest in broad terms: the symbolic power of the lunch counter would help the museum interpret not only the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but also aspects of recent Southern history, Woolworth’s role in American business history, and the process of urbanization in the South.”

The corporation agreed to donate the lunch counter section, but only with the Greensboro community’s approval. Yeingst and Bunch received permission, and Woolworth’s agreed to dismantle and pack the counter section with the assistance of a Greensboro carpenters union, whose members donated their labor.

Once the lunch counter arrived at the museum, there was little room to exhibit it. The only available space large enough was in the building’s main hallway, near the Star Spangled Banner and a sculpture of George Washington, two of the museum’s most prominent icons. “We felt that it was important to have an icon of race that cried, in the words of poet Langston Hughes, ‘I, too, am America,’” says Bunch. Its temporary placement worked well, but the counter was been temporarily removed in January. It will return in May 2004 as part of the “Separate is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education” exhibition.

McCain, Khazan, and McNeil attended a dedication ceremony for the historic lunch counter at the Smithsonian in January 1995. “Those stools represent symbols,” remarked McNeil. “We need symbols. Symbols last.”

Greensboro Sit-In Links

Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins 
Part of the Library of Congress’s African American Odyssey Web site, this educational page is suitable for older students.

Greensboro Sit-Ins: Launch of a Civil Rights Movement 
The Greensboro News and Record presents this comprehensive site, which includes interviews, articles, biographies of main players, and a time line.

On This Day 
An article on the Greensboro sit-in that appeared in the New York Times on February 15, 1960.

Sitting for Justice
An article by two Smithsonian Institution curators about their efforts to acquire a section of the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter. 

Other North Carolina Legends Who Uplifted Community

  • Helen Gray Edmonds, influential African American educator at North Carolina Central University and outspoken Republican Party supporter
  • John Merrick, C. C. Spaulding, and Aaron Moore, founders in 1898 of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest African American–owned financial institution in the country today
  • Harriet Jacobs, abolitionist and author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Sarah and Elizabeth Delany, sisters from a notable African American family who wrote the autobiographicalHaving Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First One Hundred Years
  • Floyd McKissick, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
  • Ella J. Baker, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
  • Julius Chambers, Charlotte attorney who successfully tried an influential school desegregation case before the Supreme Court
  • Thomas Day, free African American cabinetmaker in the early 1800s
  • Horace James, Union Army chaplain who founded James City, a resettlement camp for freed slaves, during the Civil War
  • John Hope Franklin, renowned African American scholar and former professor at Duke University

Supplemental Readings on North Carolinians who Uplifted Community.
Discover the work of Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Henry Frye.

Assignment Four

Complete one of the following assignments: 

Option 1: (If you are seeking technology credits for this course, choose this option.) 
A WebQuest is a way of learning using information gathered from websites. Create a WebQuest in Micrsoft Word (or HTML if you prefer) about African Americans who have uplifted their communities for your students. You may choose to take an in-depth look at one major figure (such as Martin Luther King, Jr.) or a broader view of several. Your WebQuest should utlize at least five different web sites. Include (1) a brief description of what the students can expect at each Web site, (2) questions the students should answer after visiting each site and assignments based upon the material OR a larger activity based on the material such as a role playing lesson or creation of a period diary, and (3) other details you wish to include. 
For information about developing and examples of WebQuests, go to The WebQuest you prepare for this assignment can be very simple in format.

Option 2: 
Create a list of at least five legendary figures who uplifted minority (other than African American) communities. For each legend you list, include a paragraph that describes that legend's achievements and any challenges they faced. Your list may contain legends not associated with North Carolina, if it better fits your curriculum. Focus on one minority community or several.

Submit your completed assignment via e-mail to:

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