Ed. note: Black History Month gives us pause to reflect on the lives of the many who led the way in the Health Center Movement. In the next few weeks, we will proudly recognize African American pioneers in the Health Center Movement whose vision and enormous contributions helped lay the foundation of a community-based system of primary care to improve health and bring greater equity into the nation’s health system.
Dr. John W. Hatch is an organizer, educator, visionary, and co-founder of today’s Delta Health Center of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, which was established in 1965, making it one of the first Community Health Centers. Growing up in the rural American South as a young Black man, Dr. Hatch witnessed firsthand the socioeconomic violence and racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era.
The child of two educated parents who encouraged him academically, his achievements led him to attend Atlanta University to study sociology during the Civil Rights Movement. He saw visionaries like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Nkrumah, Tom Mboya, and others, and Hatch began to surround himself with folks who aspired to empower communities. He described those college years as “a period of hope and expectation.”
After attending Atlanta University, Dr. Hatch received an opportunity to work with immigrant communities at South End House in Boston, Massachusetts. While there, he helped migrants build communities, gain job skills, and establish social networks in the North, all the while gaining a more in-depth knowledge of how healthy communities look. Dr. Hatch then went on to Tufts University Medical School’s Department of Preventive Medicine, where he began to work with Dr. Jack Geiger and Count Gibson.
Dr. Hatch served a vital role in their projects by immersing himself in Bolivar County, Mississippi, the site of the Mound Bayou health center, where he learned the communities’ needs and established care systems.
Dr. Hatch recognized citizen participation as key to empowering communities and finding solutions to health needs. He did so by helping to establish training programs that would qualify people in the community as health providers — ensuring the long-term future success of the health center. Programs initiated in health, education, and job training soon were to become a cornerstone of the health center model. Yet, of even greater importance, this concept of community partnership paved the way to consumer governance; that health centers were to be owned, operated, and directed by people from the community.
Dr. Hatch went on to continue public service in health promotion. He carried out dozens of programs to improve health outcomes amongst communities of faith in the South. He has also served as a professor at Tufts University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
John Hatch now lives in North Carolina as a retired professor, lecturer, and Community Health Center hero.
PHOTO: Dr. John W. Hatch and Melvin Grant, a member of the farm cooperative, 1968. Photograph by Daniel Bernstein.