It wasn’t Sunday afternoon if you didn’t stroll down to Dr. Darden’s drug store for a little social life and a scoop or two of his wonderful ice cream. He made it himself, chopping bits off of the ice block, mixing it with salt and tossing it into the wooden tub, then churning patiently, whistling while he worked, until the luscious confection was ready to serve. Vanilla and chocolate were the weekly staples, but every week a new special flavor was adopted or invented. It might be “spice,” fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg, or fig, strawberry, banana, pineapple, rum raisin, tutti frutti, caramel, peanut butter . . . even fruit cake for Christmas.
Hand-churned ice cream is hard work, but no doubt Dr. Darden enjoyed the break from his weekday routine. In the early years of the twentieth century he was the only black doctor within a thirty-mile radius and he often worked eighteen-hour days. His dedication almost cost him his fiancée, for the vivacious Maude Jean Logan did not understand why he could not spend more time with her. He wrote her a pleading letter, explaining that he had three patients who would die if he left them unattended for three days in order to travel to her hometown. “Won’t you sympathize with me just a little, the responsibilities on this end and realize that no man under the canopy of heaven could love you more . . .”
John Darden might have chosen an easier life. Born into a prosperous North Carolina family, he was graduated in 1901 from Leonard Medical College in Raleigh, one of the few medical schools in the South open to African Americans. He then looked for a position where the services of a black physician were especially needed, since medical care, like all public services, was segregated in the South. Tiny Opelika, in rural eastern Alabama, fit the bill. Ailing white Opelikans could choose between the Opelika Infirmary and Drake Infirmary on the campus of nearby Auburn University. Area blacks had no access to medical care at all. After his arrival, Darden opened a small private hospital where he himself performed the operations. He also persuaded his brother and brother-in-law, a pharmacist and a dentist, to move to the area.
On top of his medical practice, Dr. Darden became a community leader, historian, and advocate. The graceful white house he built in 1904 became a favorite gathering place, along with the drug store he ran with his brother. And Maude, who did marry him in 1905, cultivated a luxuriant flower garden, gave piano lessons, and taught Sunday School. The couple, both devout Methodists and avid music lovers, could make their house ring with songs and hymns.
For all this labor of love, Dr. Darden was still courting danger in the tense racial atmosphere of the early twentieth century. He even prevented a lynching. One afternoon, a black man rushed into his brother-in-law’s dental office, a white mob hot on his heels. The man was a stranger but they asked no questions, for black people knew well that one of their number might be lynched for almost any offense, or for none at all. Dr. Darden hastily gathered together several armed neighbors and also recruited the white postmaster, a Federal appointee known to be sympathetic to blacks. The postmaster spoke to the swelling crowd that was on the verge of storming the building. Meanwhile, their would-be quarry was whisked out of the office and safely out of town. His rescuers learned later that his offence had been to take a seat in a whites-only restaurant while waiting for traveling directions. No blood was shed that day, but afterward Dr. and Mrs. Darden endured a period of harassment by several local whites. Despite the risk, they were determined to remain in Opelika. Dr. Darden died in 1949.
How many Dr. Dardens have blessed America, unknown to all but a few Americans? How many have lived lives of quiet sacrifice and courage, only to be forgotten by all but their own families and perhaps their local communities? We have it on record that 858 black people were lynched between 1900 and 1910 – and 104 whites – but how many lynchings never happened, thanks to the intervention of a nearby Dr. Darden?
I likely would never have heard of John Darden if I had not studied at Auburn University. Today he is honored in Opelika where his house has recently been restored and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. I could not find Darden’s photo on the internet, but you can see his picture and read more of his story in Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, a delightful family memoir/cookbook authored by his nieces Norma Jean and Carole Darden and republished in 1994.
Oh yes, and with the help of the Darden family recipes and a good old-fashioned ice cream maker, you yourself can experience the joys of Dr. Darden’s ice cream flavors.
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Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine was the main source for this blog post. The lynching statistics were compiled by Tuskegee Institute and have been published online by the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law.