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One Woman's Opinion

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Family Stories

Mary Wakefield Buxton

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— When I married a Virginian in 1963 after several years at Randolph-Macon Women’s College (now the coed Randolph College), being from Ohio I expected different family traditions.

At that time Ohio’s public colleges were integrated as to gender and race and as a member of the student body in a woman’s college in Virginia, I had been aware that the Commonwealth operated under a distinctly different system. It preferred segregated environments.

When we moved back to Tidewater after a stint in the Vietnam War, the nation was in the midst of civil rights struggles. Both racial and gender segregation were being challenged on all fronts. As I was introduced to my new medical family and because I had come from a very different background, I was acutely interested in learning my new family’s heritage and values.

I soon heard mention of a far and distant relative, 1st Baronet Thomas Fowell Buxton of Norwich, England, who had lived in the 1800s. An Anglican, he became famous after taking up William Wilberforce’s battle that had ended slave trade in England and had carried the reform movement on for legislation that finally abolished slavery in England and its Commonwealth in 1833—well ahead of Lincoln’s Emancipation Act of 1863.

At his death, Buxton was buried in Westminster Abby. I have seen a photo of the marble statue of him and learned he is greatly revered for his inspired leadership.

The library of my husband’s grandfather, Dr. Joseph T. Buxton, contained a biography titled “Buxton, the Liberator.” Of interest to me was how this man who had lived over 100 years earlier and on another continent may have influenced an American offshoot of the family.

Dr. Joseph Thomas Buxton, who had built the first hospital on the Peninsula in 1906, was a hardworking and dedicated surgeon who had spent his life taking care of people. He was a devout Baptist (his children became Episcopalian) and set policy the hospital would not be “for whites only,” typical of most Virginia hospitals at the time, but would serve all citizens. He also insisted everyone who came to his hospital was cared for whether they could afford medical services or not.

I have heard many stories about the old hospital on Chesapeake Avenue, which later became Mary Immaculate Hospital and is now Riverside Rehab. Over the years both the Buxton patients and nurses (“Dr. Joseph” had also founded a nursing school that graduated nurses for almost 50 years) have shared with me much of their memories.

I have even seen copies of bills from the old Buxton Hospital that are highly entertaining. You could stay there, for example, in a room with a waterfront view all of Hampton Roads before you, be cared for and waited on like royalty, be served delicious home-cooked meals on a tray with a freshly-picked flower in a bud vase, fresh linen, and be cared for by a Buxton Nursing School graduate, for just a few dollars a day. A tonsillectomy might cost $25. 

 “Dr. Joseph” had two children go into the medical profession, a son, “Dr. Russell” (my husband’s father who took over the hospital at “Dr. Joseph’s” death in 1941), and a daughter, Elizabeth Buxton Styron, who was director of the Buxton School of Nursing for many years.

Those were the days when doctors were like gods and “Dr. Joseph” even crossed the York and James River, even the Chesapeake Bay by ferry and visited his patients by horse and buggy in Gloucester, Smithfield and Eastern Shore.

Then, a young cousin in the next generation, also a surgeon, Dr. Julian Buxton in Charleston, S.C., served at the “whites only” hospital. One day “Dr. Julian” admitted an African-American patient for surgery. Dr. Julian was so respected at the hospital that no one dared question his action. From that point on the hospital was integrated. I heard an African-American surgeon at his funeral many years later eulogize Dr. Julian, who had integrated the hospital and the new surgical wing there now carries his name.

No one ever said so, but I suspect Dr. Julian, like his cousin “Dr. Joseph,” also may have been inspired by “The Liberator.”

Family stories that come down to us are sources of inspiration. Thoughts, words and deeds can inspire others even in generations yet unborn. There are untold legions of good people in this world that work tirelessly any way they can, and without any fanfare, to help their fellowman. 

As I sign off for my usual summer break (my column will return after Labor Day), I leave you with these last thoughts. Someone is listening to every word we say and watching everything we do. Let’s inspire each other to do our best. 

Have a splendid summer!


posted 06.06.2012

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