physician, the originator of A.A.'s first colored
group, but badly caught in the toils,tells of his release
and of how freedom came as he worked among his
WAS BORN in a little town in Virginia in an average
religious home. My father, a negro, was a country physician.
I remember in my early youth my mother dressed me just
as she did my two sisters, and I wore curls until I
was six years of age. At that time I started school
and that's how I got rid of the curls. I found that
even then I had fears and inhibitions. We lived just
a few doors from the First Baptist Church and when they
had funerals I remember very often asking my mother
whether the person was good or bad and whether they
were going to heaven or hell. I was about six then.
My mother had been
recently converted and, actually, had become a religious
fanatic. That was her main neurotic manifestation. She
was very possessive with us children. Another thing
that mother drilled into me was a very Puritanical point
of view as to sex relations, and as to motherhood and
womanhood. I'm sure my ideas as to what life should
be like were quite different from that of the average
person with whom I associated. Later on in life that
took its toll. I realize that now.
this time an incident took place in grade school that
I have never forgotten because it made me realize that
I was actually a physical coward. During recess we were
playing basketball and I had accidentally tripped a
fellow just a little larger than I was. He took the
basketball and smashed me in the face with it. That
was enough provocation to fight but I didn't fight,
and I realized after recess why I didn't. It was fear.
That hurt and disturbed me a great deal.
Mother was of the
old school and figured that anyone I associated with
should be of the proper type. Of course, in my day,
times had changed; she just hadn't changed with the
times. I don't know whether it was right or wrong, but
at least I know that people weren't thinking the same.
We weren't even permitted to play cards in our home,
but father would give us just a little toddy with whiskey
and sugar and warm water now and then. We had no whiskey
in the house, other than my father's private stock.
I've never seen him drunk in my life, although he'd
take a shot in the morning and usually one in the evening,
and so did I; but for the most part he kept his whiskey
in his office. The only time that I have ever seen my
mother take anything alcoholic was around Christmas
time, when she would drink some eggnog or light wine.
I remember in my
first year in high school, that mother suggested that
I do not join the cadet unit. She got a medical certificate
so that I should not have to join it. I don't know whether
she was a pacifist or whether she just thought that
in the event of another war it would have some bearing
on my joining up.
About then too,
I realized that my point of view on the opposite sex
wasn't entirely like that of most of the
I knew. For that reason, I believe, I married at a much
younger age than I would have, had it not been for my
home training. My wife and I have been married for some
thirty years now. She was the first girl that I ever
took out. I had quite a heartache about her then because
she wasn't the type of girl that my mother wanted me
to marry. In the first place, she had been married before;
I was her second husband. My mother resented it so that
the first Christmas after our marriage, which was in
May of 1923, she didn't even invite us to dinner. After
our first child came my parents both became allies,
but in later days, after I became an alcoholic, they
both turned against me.
My father had come
out of the South and had suffered a great deal down
there. He wanted to give me the very best and he thought
that nothing but being a doctor would suffice. On the
other hand, I believe that I've always been medically
inclined, though I have never been able to see medicine
quite as the average person sees it. I do surgery because
that's something that you can see; it's more tangible.
But I can remember in post graduate days, and during
internship, that very often I'd go to a patient's bed
and start a process of elimination and then, very often,
I'd wind up guessing. That wasn't the way it was with
my father. I think, with him it possibly was a gift—intuitive
diagnosis. Father, through the years, had built up a
very good mail order business because, at that time,
there wasn't too much money in medicine.
I don't think I
suffered too much as far as the racial situation was
concerned because I was born into it and knew nothing
other than that. A man wasn't actually mistreated, though
if he was he could only resent it.
could do nothing about it. On the other hand, I got quite
a different picture farther south. Economic conditions
had a great deal to do with it, because I've often heard
my father say that his mother would take one of the old
time flour sacks and cut a hole through the bottom and
two corners of it and there you'd have a gown. Of course,
when father finally came to Virginia to work his way through
school, he resented the southern "cracker,"
as he often called them, so much that he didn't even go
back to his mother's funeral. He said he never wanted
to set foot in the deep south again and he didn't.
I went to elementary
and high school in Washington, D.C. and then to Howard
University. My internship was in Washington. I never had
too much trouble in school. I was able to get my work
out. All my troubles arose when I was thrown socially
among groups of people. As far as school was concerned,
I made fair grades throughout.
This was around 1935,
and it was about this time that I actually started drinking.
During the years 1930 to 1935, due to the Depression and
its aftermath, business went from bad to worse. I had
my own medical practice in Washington at that time, but
the practice slackened and the mail order business started
to fall off. Dad, due to having spent most of his time
in a small Virginia town, didn't have any too much money,
and the money he had saved and the property he had acquired
were in Washington. He was in his late fifties, and all
that he had undertaken fell upon my shoulders at his death
in 1928. For the first couple of years it wasn't too bad
because the momentum kept things going. But when things
started going haywire and I started going haywire with
them. At this point I believe I had only been intoxicated
on maybe three or four occasions, and certainly whiskey
was no problem to me.
My father had purchased
a restaurant, which he felt would take up some of my spare
time, and that's how I met Vi. She came in for her dinner.
I'd known her five or six months. To get rid of me one
evening, she decided to go to the movies, she and another
friend. A very good friend of mine who owned a drug store
across the street from us, came by only about two hours
later and said that he had seen Vi down town. I said that
she told me she was going to the movies, and I became
foolishly disturbed about it and, as things snowballed,
I decided to go out and get drunk. That's the first time
I was ever really drunk in my life. The fear of the loss
of Vi and the feeling that, though she had the right to
do as she pleased, she should have told me the truth about
it, upset me. That was my trouble. I thought that all
women should be perfect.
I don't think I actually
started to drink pathologically until approximately 1935.
About that time I had lost practically all my property
except the place we were living in. Things had just gone
from bad to worse. It meant that I had to give up a lot
of the things that I had been accustomed to and that wasn't
the easiest thing in the world for me. I think that was
basically the thing that started me drinking in 1935.
I started drinking alone then. I'd go into my home with
a bottle, and I remember clearly how I would look around
to see if Vi was watching. Something should have told
me then that things were haywire. I can remember her watching.
There came a time when
spoke to me about it, and I would say that I had a bad
cold or that I wasn't feeling well. That went on for maybe
two months, and then she got after me again about drinking.
At that time the repeal whiskies were back, and I'd go
to the store and buy my whiskey and take it to my office
and put it under the desk, first in one place and then
in another, and there soon was an accumulation of empty
bottles. My brother-in-law was living with us at that
time and I said to Vi, "Maybe the bottles are brother's.
I don't know. Ask him about it. I don't know anything
about the bottles." I actually wanted a
drink, besides feeling that I had to have a drink. From
that point on, it's just the average drinker's story.
I got to the place
where I'd look forward to the week-end's drinking and
pacify myself by saying that the week-ends were mine,
that it didn't interfere with my family or with my business
if I drank on the week-ends. But the week-ends stretched
on into Mondays, and the time soon came when I drank every
day. My practice at that juncture was just barely getting
us a living.
A peculiar thing happened
in 1940. That year, on a Friday night, a man whom I had
known for years came to my office. My father had treated
him many years prior to this. This man's wife had been
suffering for a couple of months and when he came in he
owed me a little bill. I filled a prescription for him.
The following day, Saturday, he came back and said, "Jim,
I owe you for that prescription last night. I didn't pay
you." I thought, "I know you didn't pay me,
because you didn't get a prescription." He said,
"Yes. You know the prescription that you gave me
for my wife
night." Fear gripped me then, because I could remember
nothing about it. It was the first blackout I had to recognize
as a blackout. The next morning I carried another prescription
to this man's house and exchanged it for the bottle his
wife had. Then I said to my wife, "Something has
to be done." I took that bottle of medicine and gave
it to a very good friend of mine who was a pharmacist
and had it analyzed, and the bottle was perfectly all
right. But I knew at that point that I couldn't stop and
I knew that I was a danger to myself and to others.
I had a long talk
with a psychiatrist, but nothing came of that, and I had
also, just about that time, talked with a minister for
whom I had a great deal of respect. He went into the religious
side and told me that I didn't attend church as regularly
as I should, and that he felt, more or less, that this
was responsible for my trouble. I rebelled against this,
because just about the time that I was getting ready to
leave high school, a revelation came to me about God and
it made things very complicated for me. The thought came
to me that if God, as my mother said, was a vengeful God,
he couldn't be a loving God. I wasn't able to comprehend
it. I rebelled, and from that time on I don't think I
attended church more than a dozen times.
After this incident
in 1940, I sought some other means of livelihood. I had
a very good friend who was in the Government service,
and I went to him about a job. He got me one. I worked
for the Government about a year and still maintained my
evening office practice when the Government agencies were
decentralized. Then I went South, because they told me
that the particular county I was going to in North
Carolina was a dry county. I thought that this would be
a big help to me. I would meet some new faces and be in
a dry county.
But I found that after
I got to North Carolina it wasn't any different. The State
was different, but I wasn't. Nevertheless, I stayed sober
there about six months, because I knew that Vi was to
come later and bring the children. We had two girls and
a boy at that time. Something happened. Vi had secured
work in Washington. She also was in the Government service.
I started inquiring where I could get a drink and, of
course, I found that it wasn't hard. I think whiskey was
cheaper there than it was in Washington. Matters got worse
all the time until finally they got so bad that I was
reinvestigated by the Government. Being an alcoholic,
slick, and having some good sense left, I survived the
investigation. Then I had my first bad stomach hemorrhage.
I was out of work for about four days. I got into a lot
of financial difficulties too. I borrowed five hundred
dollars from the bank and three hundred from the loan
shop, and I drank that up pretty fast. Then I decided
that I'd go back to Washington, which I did.
My wife received me
graciously, although she was living in a one room with
a kitchen affair. She'd been reduced to that. I promised
that I was going to do the right thing. We were now both
working in the same agency. I continued to drink. I got
drunk one night in October, went to sleep in the rain
and woke up with pneumonia. Nevertheless, we continued
to work together and I continued to drink, but I guess,
deep down within her heart as well as within mine, we
both knew I couldn't stop drinking. Vi thought
didn't want to stop. We had several fights and on one
or two occasions I struck her with my fist. She decided
that she didn't want any more of that. So she went to
court and talked it over with the judge. They cooked up
a plan whereby she didn't have to be molested by me if
she didn't want to be.
I went back to my
mother's for a few days until things cooled off, because
the District Attorney had put out a summons for me to
come to see him in his office. A policeman came to the
door and asked for James S., but there wasn't any James
S. there. He came back several times. Within about ten
days I got locked up for being drunk and this same policeman
was in the station house as I was being booked. I had
to put up a three hundred dollar bond because he was carrying
the same summons around in his pocket for me. So I went
down to talk to the District Attorney, and the arrangement
was made that I would go home to stay with my mother,
and that meant that Vi and I were separated. I continued
to work and continued to go to lunch with Vi, and none
of our acquaintances on the job knew that we had separated.
Very often we rode to and from work together, but being
separated really galled me deep down.
The November following,
I took a few days off after pay day to celebrate my birthday
on the 25th of the month. As usual I got drunk and lost
the money. Someone had taken it from me. That was the
usual pattern. I sometimes gave it to my mother and then
I'd go back and hound her for it. I was just about broke.
I guess I had five or ten dollars in my pocket. Anyhow,
on the 24th, after drinking all day on the 23rd, I must
have decided I wanted to see my wife
and have some kind of reconciliation or at least talk
with her. I don't remember whether I went by streetcar,
whether I walked or went in a taxicab. The one thing I
can remember now was that Vi was on the corner of 8th
and L, and I remember vividly that she had an envelope
in her hand. I remember talking to her, but what happened
after that I don't know. What actually happened was that
I had taken a penknife and stabbed Vi three times with
it. Then I left and went home to bed. Around eight or
nine o'clock there came two big detectives and a policeman
to arrest me for assault; and I was the most amazed person
in the world when they said I had assaulted someone, and
especially that I had assaulted my wife. I was taken to
the station house and locked up. The next morning I went
up for arraignment. Vi was very kind and explained to
the jury that I was basically a fine fellow and a good
husband, but that I drank too much and that she thought
I had lost my mind and felt that I should be committed
to an asylum. The judge said that if she felt that way
he would confine me for thirty days' examination and observation.
There was no observation. There might have been some investigation.
The closest I came to a psychiatrist during that time
was an intern who came to take blood tests. After the
trial, I got big-hearted again and felt that I should
do something in payment for Vi's kindness to me; so I
left Washington and went to Seattle to work. I was there
about three weeks, and then I got restless and started
to tramp across the country, here and there, until I finally
wound up in Pennsylvania, in a steel mill.
I worked in the steel
mill for possibly two months,
and then I became disgusted with myself and decided to
go back home. I think the thing that galled me was that
just after Easter I had drawn my salary for two weeks'
work and had decided that I was going to send some money
to Vi; and above all else I was going to send my baby
daughter an Easter outfit. But there happened to be a
liquor store between the post office and the mill, and
I stopped to get that one drink. Of course the kid never
got the Easter outfit. I got very little out of the two
hundred, that I drew on that pay day.
I knew I wasn't capable
of keeping the bulk of the money myself, so I gave it
to a white fellow who owned the bar which I frequented.
He kept the money for me, but I worried him to death for
it. Finally, I broke the last one hundred dollar bill
the Saturday before I left. I got out of that bill one
pair of shoes, and the rest of that money was blown. I
took the last to buy my railroad ticket.
I'd been home about
a week or ten days when one of my friends asked if I could
repair one of his electrical outlets. Thinking only of
two or three dollars to buy some whiskey, I did the job
and that's how I met Ella G., who was responsible for
my coming into A.A. I went to this friend's shop to repair
his electrical outlet and I noticed this lady. She continued
to watch me, although she didn't say anything. Finally
she said, "Isn't your name Jim S.?" I said,
"Yes." Then she told me who she was. She was
Ella G. When I had known her years before she was rather
slender, but at this time she weighed as much as she does
now, which is up around in the two hundreds or very close
to it. I had not recognized her, but as soon as she said
who she was I remembered her right away. She didn't say
anything about A.A. or Charlie G. my sponsor at that time,
but she did ask about Vi, and I told her Vi was working
and how she could locate her. It was around noon, a day
or two later, when the telephone rang and it was Ella.
She asked me if I would let someone come up and talk to
me concerning a business deal. She never mentioned anything
about my whiskey drinking because if she had I would have
told her, "No" right then. I asked her just
what this deal was, but she wouldn't say. She said, "He
has something of interest, if you will see him."
I told her that I would. She asked me one other thing.
She asked me if I would try to be sober if I possibly
could. So I put forth some effort that day to try to stay
sober if I could, though my sobriety was just a daze.
About seven that evening
my sponsor walked in, Charlie G. He didn't seem too much
at ease in the beginning. I guess I felt, and he sensed
it, that I wanted him to hurry up and say what he had
to say and get out. Anyhow, he started talking about himself.
He started telling me how much trouble he had, and I said
to myself, "I wonder why this guy is telling me all
his troubles. I have troubles of my own." Finally,
he brought in the angle of whiskey. He continued to talk
and I to listen. After he'd talked half an hour, I still
wanted him to hurry up and get out so I could go and get
some whiskey before the liquor store closed. But as he
continued to talk, I realized that this was the first
time I had met a person who had the same problems I did
and who, I sincerely believe, understood me as an individual.
I knew my wife didn't because I had been sincere in all
my promises to her
as well as to my mother and to my close friends, but the
urge to take that drink was more powerful than anything
After Charlie had
talked a while, I knew that this man had something. In
that short period he built within me something that I
had long since lost, which was hope. When he left I walked
with him to the streetcar line, which was just about a
half a block, but there were two liquor stores, one on
each corner from my home. I put Charlie on the car and
when I left him I passed both of those liquor stores without
even thinking about them.
The following Sunday
we met at Ella G.'s. It was Charlie and three or four
others. That was the next meeting, and the first meeting
of a colored group in A.A., so far as I know. We held
some two or three meetings at Ella's home and from there
we held some two or three at her mother's home. Then Charlie
or someone in the group suggested that we try to get a
place in a church or hall to hold meetings. I approached
several ministers and all of them thought it was a very
good idea, but they never relinquished any space. So,
finally, I went to the YMCA and they graciously permitted
us to use a room at two dollars a night. At that time
we had our meetings on Friday nights. Of course, it wasn't
very much of a meeting in the beginning; most of the time
it was just Vi and myself. But, finally, we got one or
two to come in and stick and from there, of course, we
started to grow.
I haven't mentioned
it, but Charlie, my sponsor, was white, and when we got
our group started we got help from other white groups
in Washington. They came, many of them, and stuck by us
and told us how
to hold meetings. They taught us a great deal about Twelve
Step work too. Indeed, without their aid we couldn't possibly
have gone on. They saved us endless time and lost motion.
And, not only that, but they gave us financial help. Even
when we were paying that two dollars a night, they often
paid it for us because our collection was so small.
At this time I wasn't
working. Vi was taking care of me and I was devoting all
my time to the building of that group. I worked at that
alone for six months. I just gathered up this and that
alcoholic, because, in the back of my mind, I wanted to
save all the world. I had found this new "something,"
and I wanted to give it to everyone who had a problem.
We didn't save the world, but we did manage to help some
That's my story of
what A.A. has done for me.
for more resources on Jim S.