Karen Garloch

Dr. Hugh Verner pushed for desegregation, access to care for the poor

When I arrived in Charlotte in 1987, with a new job writing about health care for the Observer, I was quickly introduced to movers and shakers in the medical community.

There were some great ones – including David Citron, who headed medical education at Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Carolinas Medical Center); George Barrett, a leader in bioethics and state and national physician licensing standards; and Hugh Verner, who with James M. Alexander co-founded the practice that became Mecklenburg Medical Group.

Until Verner died March 24 in Asheville at age 95, he was the last of those four doctors still living.

“He was one of the heroes in medicine here,” said Dr. Jessica Schorr Saxe, who moved to Charlotte in 1980 to work for the Neighborhood Medical Clinic, co-founded by Verner.

His goal was to improve access to quality medical care for all people, and the clinic, opened in 1975 on Alexander Street, served low-income residents from the nearby public housing complexes of Earle Village and Piedmont Courts.

Eventually, the clinic was taken over by the hospital and, in 1997, moved to what is now called Carolinas Medical Center-Biddle Point, off Beatties Ford Road.

Verner “set a real example for what leadership in the medical profession should be,” said Saxe, who recently retired from the Biddle Point clinic. “He didn’t have a big ego. He did the right thing even at times when it was not the popular thing to do.”

Years earlier, Verner staked himself out on an even less popular issue – segregation.

Born in Florence, S.C., and raised in Forest City, Verner was a son of the South. He graduated from Davidson College, then studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Charlotte in 1947 to practice with Alexander.

In 1954, Verner was the one who made the motion to integrate the Mecklenburg County Medical Society, which he would serve as president 20 years later. The motion passed, and it meant black doctors could practice at Charlotte Memorial instead of being restricted to the former Good Samaritan Hospital.

He was ahead of his time. This was a year before the N.C. Medical Society passed a resolution to accept black doctors as “scientific members,” allowing them to participate in business meetings but not social functions. It was 10 years later, in 1965, before black doctors were allowed unrestricted membership in the state society.

“It’s kind of hard to remember 1954,” Saxe said. “That must have been a very courageous thing to do.”

Dr. Melvin Pinn, longtime director of the Neighborhood Medical Clinic, said Verner was “a delightful gentleman.” Before Pinn was hired, he recalled meeting Verner in Citron’s office at Charlotte Memorial. “He was a very good diplomat for getting things done for poor folks,” said Pinn, who now lives and works in Virginia. “We owe both of them a lot.”

Verner and his late wife, Danny, had “a wonderful partnership,” Saxe said, and it wasn’t surprising that in their retirement to Montreat in 1991, the Verners founded the Swannanoa Valley Voice for Children, providing child care, family services, teacher education and health services. The couple also led a campaign that raised $3.6 million to build and operate what has been renamed the Verner Center for Early Learning.

“He had a lot of connections, and he used his connections to help people who didn’t have money,” Saxe said. “He always did the right thing, and he just kept on doing the right thing.”

A memorial service is 2 p.m. Friday at Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church in Swannanoa.

Garloch: 704-358-5078