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Dr. Aaron Shirley: Health Care Innovator

Dr. Aaron Shirley: Health Care Innovator

By Alexandra Walker, Director of Communications, National Association of Community Health Centers

Dr. Aaron Shirley was a health care innovator and civil rights activist who dedicated his life and career to ending the extreme disparities that exist in America in health care and health outcomes due simply to an individual’s race, ethnicity, income, or zip code. His creativity and commitment to improving the health of underserved communities earned him a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1993.

Breaking Racial Barriers

Born in Mississippi in 1933, Dr. Shirley pursued formal medical training, eventually becoming the state’s first African American resident in pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Throughout his life, Dr. Shirley deployed his medical expertise in the service of social justice. In 1964, he joined with others to form the Medical Committee on Human Rights and provide medical care to civil rights workers during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.

Involvement in the Community Health Center Movement Begins

Only a few years later, he co-founded the second Community Health Center in Mississippi: the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson. Opening a health care center may not seem like a political act, but Dr. Shirley, like most of the early health center pioneers, had to contend with some powerful forces who opposed his project.

NACHC’s former Senior Vice President Dan Hawkins recounts a story from the early days of Jackson-Hinds that illustrates the climate of racism and white supremacy in which health center pioneers operated. It also demonstrates Dr. Shirley’s tenacity and creativity:

“Back in Jackson, Aaron launched the Jackson-Hinds Health Center— but the Governor attempted to veto its grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the federal war on poverty agency, under a little-noticed provision of the OEO Act.

Aaron flew to Washington and in a lunchtime meeting, convinced President Richard Nixon’s OEO director, Donald Rumsfeld, to override the veto. Shortly after, he and the folks at OEO learned that some federal grant funding checks that had been mailed to Jackson-Hinds had mysteriously disappeared and never been delivered. So they conspired to send the next checks to Aaron’s home in shoe boxes wrapped up to look like birthday presents.”

Jackson-Hinds grew to become one of the largest health centers in the state, with more than a dozen satellite offices; its core strength in community involvement and attention to such social determinants of health as food and affordable housing for elderly African American citizens.

Innovation Leads to a First-of-Its-Kind Health Care Facility

In 1996, Dr. Shirley transformed an abandoned shopping center into the Jackson Medical Mall, a medical and retail facility that partners with Jackson State University, Tougaloo College, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center to provide healthcare for the underserved and to promote economic and community development.

The Jackson Medical Mall was the only facility of its kind at the time in America to provide quality health care, human services, and retail in one place. The innovative mall has revitalized the neighborhood’s economic, education and community development and now serves as a national model. Shirley chaired the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation until his death in 2014.

Just last year, in a fitting tribute, the state of Mississippi named an elementary school in honor of Dr. Shirley and his wife Ollye Shirley, the former president of the Jackson Public Schools Board of Trustees.  The school had previously been named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee.