Celebrating Black History Month – Dr. Felix Henry Dunn
This Black History Month, our goal is to reflect on and celebrate the contributions of those in our community, spanning decades and generations. The theme for Black History Month 2022 is Black Health and Wellness, and what better way to begin than by honoring a physician who made a lasting impact on the City of Gulfport?
Dr. Felix Henry Dunn faced steadfast resistance, significant challenges, and fierce opposition, but he dedicated his life to taking care of his community. His faith and hope that we would one day be able to focus on our commonalities instead of our differences motivated him to care for his community for almost 50 years.
His daughter, Felicia, says “He loved his community, and he loved his family. That love was rooted in his faith, because he always believed that if we just looked at what we had in common and what united us rather than divisions and differences, then the community as a whole would thrive.”
Caring for Gulfport
Dr. Dunn established his clinic in Gulfport in 1953 as one of the first Black physicians in Harrison County. He was not able to join the local chapter of the American Medical Association due to segregation. Instead, he joined and became president of the local branch of the National Medical Association. Dr. Dunn also became president of the Gulfport Branch of the NAACP.
He was always focused on his patients, emphasizing the importance of accessibility. When the Polio outbreak took place, the Health Department distributed doses to other doctors for their offices. Dr. Dunn had to fight to get doses of Polio vaccine for his clients instead of his patients having to go to the Health Department. In another instance of how he increased access to care, Dr. Dunn drove from New York City to Gulfport immediately following Hurricane Camille to open his clinic. Even though he had no power or water, he worked to make sure that everyone who needed to be seen could be. “Persistence, positivity and perseverance” guided his decisions, comments Felicia.
Dr. Dunn and Memorial
Unfortunately, Dr. Dunn was not allowed to be on the staff at Memorial for many years, nor was he allowed to complete rotations in the Memorial Emergency Room, even though he was treating a significant portion of the Gulfport community. Although he was met with resistance from other physicians, he continued to care for his patients to the best of his ability. By 1955, Dr. Dunn was one of the first Black providers to have admitting privileges at Memorial. Felicia continues, “His patients were going to have access to whatever resources were out there, regardless of the need.”
“A positive force for good”
Dr. Dunn was always focused on the good. “His efforts, in collaboration with so many, have borne fruits today,” says Felicia. Some of the incredible feats Dr. Dunn was able to achieve or support include:
- When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the Selma to Montgomery March, Dr. Dunn was requested to attend as a medical professional. He volunteered to march and served in the medical unit during this historic march for civil rights.
- He established a medical clinic for members of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1303, where any union member and their immediate family members could access primary health care.
- Dr. Dunn joined Dr. Gilbert R. Mason in organizing the Biloxi Wade-Ins and Gulfport Wade-In, petitioning the Harrison County Board of Supervisors to allow “unrestrained use of the beach”. These protests prompted the first intervention of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department challenging Mississippi’s segregationist laws and practices.
- “Once you were his patient, you were a patient for life,” says Felicia. Over the course of his practice, he delivered more than 4,000 babies, and he wrote each of them a birthday and Christmas card until they turned 18.
- He was instrumental in advocating for the injured worker’s right to see their own doctor and get treated by the physician of their choice as well as receive the best health care possible to prevent further injuries.
- For at least 30 years, Dr. Dunn’s clinic was designated and served as a Head Start screening clinic as part of the President’s Council to develop Head Start to provide early childhood healthcare screening.
- Dr. Dunn was the first African American to serve on the Harrison County Development Commission.
- He was part of a core group of parents of children with special needs who organized the Harrison County Adult Learning Center and Early Childhood Development Center.
- Dr. Dunn performed physicals for all Harrison County youth who participated in the Special Olympics.
- He helped develop a partnership with Keesler Air Force Base to retain Black physicians after completing their obligations, encouraging new providers to stay in the area to set up their own practices and offer more specialized care for the community.
Dr. Felix Henry Dunn dedicated his energy and talents to the City of Gulfport and Harrison County, making it a personal mission to improve the wellness of those who are underserved. While we know we have much progress to make, Memorial is committed to continuing his legacy by transforming the health of all in our community.
We want to extend special thanks to Dr. Dunn’s daughter, The Honorable Felicia Dunn Burkes, for sharing her wealth of knowledge with us.