Dr. James Alexander Franklin, Sr. was born on November 17, 1886, in Chattanooga, Tennessee to Edward Franklin and Rosa Calloway. As an African American physician practicing in the segregated Deep South, early in his career Franklin barely made enough to pay his rent. However, he never turned a patient away and would accept “in kind” payments of food and supplies from those who could not pay in cash. Franklin would walk an average of 20 to 30 miles a day to visit his patients. Because of his hard work, generosity, love, and respect for his patients, Franklin would later be recognized as “The South’s Richest Negro Doctor.”
Franklin’s uncle, Reverend William H. Franklin, the first African American to graduate from Maryville College in Tennessee and the founder of Swift Memorial College, in Rogersville, Tennessee, inspired him to attend college and medical school. Franklin attended Swift Memorial College and later went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he worked his way through school waiting tables. After 2 years at Lincoln University, he graduated in 1909 receiving a Bachelor of Arts Degree, Magna Cum Laude.
In 1911, Franklin entered the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine. He worked his way through school shoveling ashes from the dormitory’s furnaces. Although Franklin paid the same tuition, room and board as white students, his room was located in the basement away from other students. Besides a cot, the only other furniture in his room was a trunk that doubled as storage and desk and a simple kerosene lamp for light. While at UM, Franklin was chosen to be a part of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. – Epsilon Chapter, and because he was a talented pianist, he served as the class musician. With an unbreakable spirit, Franklin graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1914. After graduation, Franklin returned to Tennessee and married Dora Alice Cochraham, a school teacher, on October 2, 1914.
During World War I, Franklin was a member of the Army medical unit in Kentucky. Although he was an Army Doctor, his highest rank was Sergeant. Franklin moved to Evergreen, Alabama in 1915 with his wife and began his medical practice. In 1919, a turning point in his career and life occurred when a poor white farmer approached him to request medical attention for his wife because he could not afford the medical fees charged by Conecuh County’s white doctor. Franklin attended to the farmer’s wife and she improved under his care. However, when the white citizens of Evergreen found out that an African American man had actually touched the body of a white woman, they were furious. They questioned the farmer and told him of their plans to lynch the black doctor. The farmer was loyal to Franklin for saving his wife and bought a train ticket for Franklin, his wife, and 2 small children. The farthest destination from Evergreen afforded by the ticket was Plateau, Alabama, a small community outside of Mobile, also known as “Africa Town,” the home of the last known illegal shipment of slaves brought to the United States.
Upon arrival to Plateau, the Shamburger Family took in the new doctor and his family. Franklin was penniless at this point. He sold his prize possession – a gold watch given to him by his uncle – for $2. This incident caused Franklin to vow that he would never be broke again. He started a medical practice in Plateau that grew rapidly along with his good reputation and healthy bank account.
In 1924, Franklin moved his family to Mobile, Alabama. Franklin’s home became a safe haven for African Americans traveling in the south, including dignitaries such as Illinois Congressman Oscar DePriest, entertainer Paul Robeson, actress Dorothy Dandridge, opera singer Marion Anderson, and baseball great Jackie Robinson.
By 1954, Ebony Magazine named Franklin as “The South’s Richest Negro Doctor.” Franklin built a portfolio of 2 large office buildings, 17 houses, several vacant lots, and drug stores. His 13 room home still stands today as historical landmark and a part of the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail (named for his late granddaughter) and is occupied by his youngest and only surviving child of 10 children – Joseph A. Franklin.
On Friday July 21, 1972 at the age of 85, Franklin – the physician, humanitarian and scholar – quietly passed away to his eternal home.
In 1975, Dr. Marilyn Aiello and a group of concerned citizens recognized the need for quality healthcare in the underserved community close to Franklin’s home and founded the Franklin Primary Healthcare Centers, named after Franklin, who served the community for more than 60 years. Today, Franklin Primary Health Centers has grown to 21 locations and 1 mobile unit to service the Mobile, AL communities and surrounding areas. Continuing the legacy of service to the community, Dr. Franklin’s grandson – Dr. Coleridge T. Franklin is currently a physician at the Franklin Primary Healthcare Centers.