by Shirley Simmons
The museums prepared material honoring two African American medical doctors who practiced in Fuquay Springs and Fuquay-Varina as a valuable addition to our Doctor’s Room docent led tour. We share briefly some of their history as we have been able to research their work in our town. While all doctors did see black and white patients, these two came to fill a niche for African American patients.
Dr. Judge Bustee Davis was the earliest of these. Dr. Davis came to town at the impetus of Romie Burt who constructed a building specifically for his practice. Based upon our research and the memories of the Burt children, we believe his practice began about 1940 in the building which still exists on Railroad Street.
Davis was born February 1, 1885, the son of William and Clara Davis of Montgomery, Alabama. He chose to study for pre-med at the Old Leonard School of Medicine at Shaw University in Raleigh. His MD was earned at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Returning to Raleigh, he interned at St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh.
Davis practiced in Louisburg, North Carolina for 20 years. Following that he had an office in Lillington, North Carolina for two years. From here Burt recruited him for his office in Fuquay Springs.
We could not verify exactly how long he worked from the Burt office which, after he vacated it, became Burt’s cafe. He moved when he built his own house and office on West Academy Street across from the First Baptist Church. At age 68, he was practicing there when he died August 11, 1953 following an illness of several weeks.
The museums would be interested in hearing of babies he might have delivered, two of whom we know were the Burt Children. Orlean Burt Newton, whom he delivered, remembers attending his funeral with her parents. Davis was buried in the Louisburg Cemetery.
Dr. Davis was once President of the NAACP, a deacon in the Baptist church, and listed in Who’s Who among North Carolina Negro Baptists. Professionally, Davis was a member of the Old North State Medical Society, one of the oldest medical societies for African American Physicians in the United States.
Davis married Gertrude Lola Williamson with whom he had four children: Judge Jr., Carolyn Pauline, Reid Astely, and Lula Beatrice.
The second of the African American Doctors who served our town is one of the most recognized physicians of the state, often referenced as the “Dean” of African-American physicians in Raleigh, Dr. George Clyde Debnam. Our association with this doctor derives from George Rogers of Fuquay Springs who met Dr. Debnam during a hospital stay and persuaded him to consider setting up a practice here.
Dr. Debnam took over Dr. Davis’ practice with offices first in back of Roger’s Soda Shop and then in the Davis building for some ten years duration. Much of his time and energy was given to citizens of our town, although the family always lived in Raleigh.
One of fourteen or fifteen children, George was born to James Otis and Cherrie Smith Debnam in Youngsville, North Carolina on November 5, 1927. An outstanding scholar, he enrolled at Shaw University at the age of 15. Graduating in 1947, Debnam then earned his MD from Meharry Medical College in 1951. He, too, interned at St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh, 1951-54.
He began his practice in Fuquay Spring in 1954. During this time, Dr. Debnam served military hospitals including Womack Hospital located on Fort Bragg, NC. He worked in Fuquay as part of the staff at the Fuquay-Varina Branch Hospital briefly after it was established in 1960.
Eventually, Dr. Debnam opened the Debnam Clinic in Raleigh where he remained until retirement. Married to Marjorie Boyd, he was blessed to have her serve as clinic office manager. They are parents of three daughters. Gwendolyn is a Professor of English; however, the twin daughters, Marie Georgette and Marjoria Lynnette both graduated from Meharry Medical College. They joined their father at the Debnam Clinic in 1995.
When Dr. Debnam retired in 2001 after 50 years and 6 months (another source says 53 years) in practice, he had delivered 11,500 babies and performed more than 5,000 surgical operations. His distinguished career accrued many honors: President of the Old North State Medical Society, Doctor of the Year, Member of the Board of Trustees at Shaw University, a Trustee Emeritus at North Carolina Central University and Senior Physician at Wake Medical Center. In 1997, Shaw renamed the administration building the George C. Debnam Building.
Marjorie was an accomplished community volunteer and together the Debnams established “The Friends of Distinction”, a club to help young black men. Among Mrs. Debnam’s activities was work on breast cancer screening and after-school programs for black youth. She worked for 35 years with the YWCA, many years with Wake Opportunities, and was a leader in “Strengthening the Black Family, Inc.”
In the Independent, October 30, 1980, Dr. Debnam was quoted as “always having a special place in my heart for Fuquay-Varina.” At age 93, He remains an associate member of the First Baptist Church in Fuquay-Varina.
In retirement, Dr. Debnam founded Debnam Publishing Company and authored his first book, God’s Gifts: Mothers. This volume was dedicated to Marjorie who died in 2004. Dr. Debnam has produced manuscripts of original material on his life, Shaw University, medical conditions, and West-African and African-American funeral traditions and other anthologies. He was quoted as saying, “I am trying to draw attention to things that appear to be forgotten” in interviews with Barry Saunders.
The museums staff hopes in this research to draw attention to things many readers may have never known as we honor these two medical giants.
Sources: Obituary of Davis, Find a Grave, files in the museum of Dr. Debnam, Independent, October 30, 1980, interview with Orlean Newton, Old North State Society documentation, WRAL November 25, 2014 and History of Fuquay-Varina.