Harold Freeman had big plans after he finished his residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 1968. He planned to cut cancer out of Harlem.

“I’m ready to do it. I’m skilled. I know how to cut cancer out. I want to cut it out of Harlem. I can’t do that. I can’t cut it out. It won’t yield. It won’t yield to the surgeon’s knife. It won’t yield to what we call the Bard-Parker, which was the name of the surgeon’s knife. Cancer wouldn’t yield,” Freeman said to The Cancer Letter in an interview with Robert A. Winn, director of VCU Massey Cancer Center, and John Stewart, founding director of LSU Health/LCMC Health Cancer Center. “Then I get to the reality, I can’t cut it out. Why? Because the people were coming in too late with cancer for me to be able to cut it out.”

Freeman made his career out of asking why it was that his patients, who were poor and Black, sought treatment too late. As president of the American Cancer Society in 1988-89, he published a study, “Cancer in the socioeconomically disadvantaged,” and made an unprecedented conclusion—“that the principal reason that Black people were dying from cancer was because they were poor.”

“It was a socioeconomic invasion that was deeper than the cancer invasion in the community,” Freeman said.

Freeman hypothesized that “the combination of the three overlapping circles: poverty, social injustice, and culture, drives disparities across the continuum from where you live to when you die. That’s my theory, and if that’s true, then it should guide you about what to do about it.”

His work and background growing up in segregated Washington, D.C. schools led him to a solution.

“If people meet barriers in getting through the healthcare system with cancer and other chronic diseases, then maybe we should navigate them. Maybe we should navigate them. The concept of patient navigation came out of that experience,” he said. “People who did not have that background wouldn’t think of this, wouldn’t be challenged like this, wouldn’t care, perhaps, like I did, about it.

“The truth of the matter is that I came from nowhere. I had the opportunity to become a high-level trained surgeon, that I came from a particular background that caused me to be concerned about injustice, and particularly, racial injustice, and then applied it to my work.”

This story is part of a series of interviews conducted by Robert Winn, guest editor of the Cancer History Project during Black History Month (The Cancer Letter, Feb. 4, 2022).

This conversation is also available as a video and a podcast.

Robert Winn: I was going to start with just opening up a couple of questions. The first question that I had was, as I was looking, I was trying to figure out what got you interested in surgery.

Harold Freeman: Well, when I was in medical school at Howard University—I finished medical school in 1958, a long time ago. I was first interested in psychiatry, actually. And the theory of psychiatry really fascinated me in my freshman year of medical school. But, I became discouraged a year or so later when we went to the clinical part at St. Elizabeth’s where they had chronic patients.

I got discouraged because it didn’t seem like there were good medical answers to serious psychological problems that I saw. But I kept my interest in psychiatry. In fact, I finished, I got the prize in psychiatry at the end of medical school […]

But in the meantime, I shifted my thinking, because when I rotated to surgery, I liked the idea that you could make a diagnosis, and operate, and have a finding, like take out an appendix, and the patient would be OK. I liked that idea. I liked the idea of being able to see what I was doing and see the result of it. That philosophy has stayed with me across other areas of my life. I like to do things and see results, if that’s possible.

I’m willing to put in a lot of time to get to an answer, but I like to see that I have an effect. To understand the problem and then see that I have an effect. That’s kind of the answer to that.

I became a surgeon—and why did I go into cancer surgery is a question you might ask. I’m not so sure, you can’t really understand why you do things, but I do know that my father died of cancer, testicular cancer, when I was 13 years old, and it disserved my life a great deal.

I didn’t like cancer. From childhood, I didn’t like it. I wanted to do something about it. And then another part of that was I trained in general surgery at Howard University under Burke Syphax —you may know that name. And LaSalle D. Leffall, who was really inspiring to me at that time. I found that I wanted to see if I could carry my skill level further like LaSalle had done, and Jack White before him, both at Howard university.

I got the opportunity to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering where after general surgery, I did residency for three more years to learn radical cancer surgery, including all the way to pelvic exsanguination. Big operations, I learned. When I came to Harlem, the question might be, well where did you go after Memorial training, which was four years plus seven years. Now I’m ready to go out and work.

The question is, where should I go? Because of my particular background in Washington, D.C., I think I had an effect, the idea that I had a lifetime by then that reflected what was happening to people who were not treated fairly. I lived that, I lived that very much in Washington, D.C. The social environment in which I grew up in, which was really separation of races, including all the way through Dunbar High School, where the high schools were separated in Washington when I finished.

Separated. Separated now. And that’s another story. That’s another very interesting story, but we’re getting away from cancer. But it was an excellent school, Dunbar. And why?

Somewhat why because it was segregated, and let me tell you this. This is a shocking story, but it’s a true story. So now, if you were a young person in Washington, D.C., as I was, and you wanted to go to college, you would choose Dunbar because everyone knew that if you wanted to go to college, you go to Dunbar High School to get prepared.

Dunbar attracted young Black people with aspiration from the whole city. It gathered, by that process, people who had high aspirations. I went there. At the same time, that was related to prejudice. I couldn’t go to the white schools. I wanted to go to the best Black school. That school had started in 1870 just after the Civil War as the first Black high school in America, by the way, that’s another story. There are many stories within the story.

The teachers at Dunbar were people, some of whom were PhD people from Princeton and Harvard. I went to high school between ‘47 and ‘50, finished in ‘50. The teachers were high level teachers who had extraordinary education including the father of Black history, by the way, [Carter G. Woodson].

He taught there. Now you’re through two different sets of prejudice, having the students going to that high school because of prejudice and separation, and the best teachers that you could find at the same school, because they should have had jobs anywhere else that they could, but they weren’t allowed. You have the best students and the best teachers in the same building at the same time.

They created an extraordinary high school. One of the best academic high schools in the history of America. From that school, high level people like Senator Brooke from Massachusetts came out of that school. There are many famous scholars. Charles Drew came out of that school. And I can name many others. I’m getting off point, but it’s an important part of the story, why you do certain things.

I went into surgery because I wanted to see results. I went to Memorial, I wanted to get better technically than I had just with general surgery. Then, the next thing, why did I go to Harlem?

I went to Harlem because of that particular background. I felt that if I have all this skill that I built up over all these years, I want to apply it to help my people. That’s what I decided at that time. That was 1968 when I went from Memorial Sloan Kettering to the community of Harlem to work as a surgeon.

That’s the background. Now, what happened then? Now I’m ready to cut cancer out of Harlem. I’m ready to do it. I’m skilled. I know how to cut cancer out. I want to cut it out of Harlem. I can’t do that. I can’t cut it out. It won’t yield. It won’t yield to the surgeon’s knife. It won’t yield to what we call the Bard-Parker, which was the name of the surgeon’s knife. Cancer wouldn’t yield.

So now I’m frustrated. I said, “I got all this skill. I can cut this thing out.” But then I get to the reality, I can’t cut it out. Why? Because the people were coming in too late with cancer for me to be able to cut it out. I can’t cut it out now.

I’m faced with this—and I’m very sincere because I don’t know very much at this point about life, except my own life. And I’m trying to find my way, and I’ve had a certain kind of experience that brought me to this point.

But now I have all this education, all these skills, and I can’t apply them as I want to because the people are coming in too late. Now I’m frustrated. What am I going to do? I’m the head of the breast clinic at Harlem.

The people are coming in with tumors that you can see with your eyes, ulcerated, coming into my clinic for the first visit. I said, “Well, how could this happen?” This was a turning point in my life, in my thinking, because now I see that what I’m doing is not the right pathway. I mean, it’s surely good to be able to be a surgeon and to operate.

But if you can’t operate because something in the community is overwhelming. It was a socioeconomic invasion that was deeper than the cancer invasion in the community. I’m dealing with something that I’ve never really faced very much before and said, “Well, what are you going to do?” My question. And so the kind of philosophical question in my mind. I said, “Well, these people are all Black and they’re all poor.”

I’m asking then, in 1970, “Are they dying because they’re Black? Or are they dying because they’re poor? Or are they dying because of some combination of being Black and poor?” That became the critical question because I’m one to try to fix this thing if I can, and until I know what is driving it, I can’t fix it. I’m willing to accept whatever the answer is.

If you’re dying because you are Black, genetically, then the pathway to fixing it is different from if you’re dying because you’re poor. It’s fundamentally different. And I really wanted to try to do something about it.

That led me to try to answer that question first, from a point of no knowledge. I’m not trained in sociology, I’m trained in surgery. I’m trained in tennis. I know how to play tennis. I mean, I won the championship. I was a national champion at age 15 in tennis. It was another story.

So now, I’m trying to say, “What am I going to do?” So I took time to call in maybe 20, 25 women who had come to my clinic too late. They were going to die, but they hadn’t died yet from advanced disease. I talked to them and said, “Well, what really happened to you? Why did you come in so late with the tumor?” I could see the tumor.

The story was this, the person would say, “Well, doctor, this was not the first time I tried to come in. I came in to the Harlem Hospital Emergency Room two years ago, and I had a lump in my breast. And I waited for six hours. I finally got to see a doctor. He was polite to me, but he told me, ‘You’re in the wrong place. You have a lump in your breast, and that’s not an emergency. And you’re in the emergency room. You need to go to the Medicaid office—you don’t have insurance.’” The Medicaid office was 100 blocks south of Harlem Hospital at that time.

“Get your Medicaid card, come back and then make an appointment to the proper clinic, not the emergency room.” The woman would be, typically, a woman with no man in the house, typically. She’d have children. She’d be worried about food, clothing, and shelter, and the avoidance of crime and Harlem, which was high at that time. And she’d been told to, “Go downtown 100 blocks and come back with your Medicaid card.”

In summary, to that woman, the process that was being recommended for her to solve her problems was more painful than the painless lump, which she came in for. That’s what she had, a painless lump. And the process being recommended was much more painful than the lump, which was not bothering her except that it was there. And that was the story.

If that’s the story, then the question is, well, what do you do about it? Well, my action took more than one pathway.

At Harlem Hospital itself, I set up a free clinic on Saturdays. By this time, I’m director of surgery, by 1974. I set up a free clinic. The person who was coming in could just go right to my clinic without registering into the hospital. I set that up in 1979. It began to work, until the hospital administrator told me, “You can’t do that. You can’t do that because it’s illegal. You can’t just set up a clinic at nine o’clock on Saturday morning and tell people to come in.” And that was correct. You can’t do that.

They’re worried about malpractice and all that. And look, that was right. I called the health and hospitals corporation downtown and said, “Look, I’m trying to help these people.” They, they sent the vice president up to talk me, and they said, “Well, you’re trying to do the right thing, Dr. Freeman. And we’re going to help you.” That vice president, a Black woman who came to visit with me said, “Look, we like what you’re doing, but we got to help you to do it so it’s right.”

She created a hospital number specifically only for my clinic, Saturday morning free clinic. She said, “When the person comes into your clinic, put this number on the chart and the hospital will know that the patient is in the hospital.” Now, I converted that free clinic to one that was within the hospital system and went on from there.

That was the big step forward. Then I’d found I could do a lot to get the patient that far, but still there were problems with getting a patient all the way through treatment.

Now, something else happened to me simultaneously. In life, you’re doing more than one thing at one time all the time, whether you know it or not. Things are happening in different streams, and you’ve got to bring the streams together and make a river out of those streams for your life. That’s what I try to do.

In the meantime, sometimes if you work hard and maybe if you don’t work hard, you get promoted, you get promoted. I had studied breast cancer in Harlem by that time and published a paper on it, about the death rate from breast cancer in Harlem. Now, the governor’s wife, Governor Hugh Carey. His wife died of breast cancer in 1974.

The governor set up a high level committee to advise him about what he should do for breast cancer in New York state. I was called to testify before the committee because people knew that I had the experience in Harlem.

I testified and it resulted in the governor deciding to put the money into Harlem. From that experience, we developed the Breast Examination Center of Harlem, which was put under Memorial Sloan Kettering, a big advance.

Those are all things that happened. In the meantime, because of that work, I got put on the board of directors of the American Cancer Society, nationally, as a director at large. Because there was no way that a doctor from Harlem could get on the national board directly. Somebody recognized what I’m doing […] a wonderful man, a surgeon. And he said, “You might have some support here. So, I want you to be on the national board.” Ten years later, I became the national president of the American Cancer Society. Ten years later.

Now that’s happening simultaneously with my local experience in Harlem. Now, I’m learning about the local conditions in Harlem, cancer, breast cancer in particular, and what needs to be done. At the American Cancer Society…LaSalle D. Leffall was the president of the American Cancer Society in 1978. I came onto the board around that time. LaSalle Leffall had started a committee called Cancer in Minorities after holding a meeting in Washington on cancer in Black Americans. LaSalle did a big step forward with cancer.

So, I became the chairman of that committee after LaSalle was chairman, and he was going on to a higher level. I raised a question in that meeting of the American Cancer Society, as chairman of the Committee on Cancer Minorities, are these people dying because they’re Black or because they’re poor? The same question that had come to me earlier.

But in this case, now I’m on a committee reporting to a board. I raised the question to the board of the American Cancer Society.

The question I had, it started early in Harlem, of Black people dying because they’re poor or because they’re Black. The board unanimously said, “We have to study that and you have to be the chairman of the committee to study, yourself.” In 1984, that committee of select scholars from around the country; epidemiologists and other kinds of people.

We did a two-year study starting in 1984. This study was published in [1989], called “Cancer in the socioeconomically disadvantaged.” The report concluded, for the first time I knew in the country, that the principal reason that Black people were dying from cancer was because they were poor. That was the question that I had wondered about. Now we had a two-year scholarly study, and I had led the study.

The American Cancer Society reported, with me as chairman, the principal cause of death from cancer in Black Americans is poverty. Now I have a real direction to go, because that’s the answer to my question.

Three years later, I became the president myself, 1988, 10 years after LaSalle was first president. I’m the second Black president of the American Cancer Society. The principal activity I carried out during my year as president was the whole hearings in America on cancer in the poor. Hearings.

There were national hearings on cancer in the poor, which I led in seven American cities, hearing the testimony of poor people, of all races, who had cancer. We were trying to get to, “What’s the bottom line?” Poverty? Universal? What’s the bottom line? That committee concluded, and I wrote the paper from that, that the principal reason that the experience of poor people with cancer is, they meet barriers. Poor people meet barriers when they attempt to get into and through this very complex American healthcare system. They meet barriers. And from that idea, I thought of a concept.

If people meet barriers in getting through the healthcare system with cancer and other chronic diseases, then maybe we should navigate them. Maybe we should navigate them. The concept of patient navigation came out of that experience. Let’s talk about, what does navigate mean? Birds navigate, they go from north to 1,000 miles south. Butterflies navigate. Cars navigate. Airplanes navigate. So, people trying to get from one point to an end point. That’s the concept.

We need to get from one point in the community to some point of resolution. Why not apply navigation to medicine, to people? If birds can navigate, people can navigate. If you can help them. If cars can navigate, people can navigate. If airplanes can navigate, people can navigate. So, let’s navigate people across the healthcare continuum.

That’s a very important concept. Now, instead of a surgeon, like I am, operating on one patient who comes in with advanced disease, I’m now considering what’s the total journey that that patient had to take to get to me and beyond?

I have to continue being a good surgeon, but I have to try and understand the journey that took place before the patient got to me. These were poor people. In my case, they were Black people. What is the journey? The journey has to do with reaching them in the community, educating them in the community, finding a way to navigate them from the community to get a test in the hospital or elsewhere, like a mammogram or colonoscopy.

And don’t stop here. They get the test; you make sure they get the test. Even if they can’t pay for it, get them to test. That’s part of the journey. You have to eliminate any barrier they would have as a community person, getting the test. Eliminate the barrier and navigate. If they have an abnormal finding from the test, they need to have a biopsy to prove what it is. That’s a journey that hadn’t been paid much attention to. You have a lump in the breast, but it’s got to be biopsied rapidly.

The journey goes from biopsy to pathological findings. Now, you have cancer of the breast, and then you’ve going that far. Now you have to navigate them into treatment. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and to that in a timely way.

We came up with this journey, shifting from what I do as a surgeon on one patient, which I still continued to do, to the journey of the patient across the continuum that they had to go from the point of the community they live in, to testing, to treatment, to resolution, to support after care. That became patient navigation.

Patient navigation. That concept caught on in America. I got to testify before the Congress on patient navigation. I had studied it. I got a lot of help from people. Some senator from New Jersey, Menendez, helped me, people like that. They got caught up with the idea. Menendez himself, he said, “This is a good idea.” What happened was the Patient Navigation Act was passed by the Congress in 1995 based on the Harlem experience.

The information came to law, signed by George Bush. By this time I was the chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel. That helped a lot too. I’d been in that position for 12 years. I had communication contact with three different presidents during that time as chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel. I’m getting promoted. So, this is another stream in the river of my life and river of my experience that I referred to. Now you’ve got something coming out of Harlem, where you’ve asked some questions and you’ve begun to try to answer them.

You get to an answer, then you get promoted so you have a platform to say what you believe to the whole country. Because now you’re president of the American Cancer Society, and they get behind you and they helped to drive this thing. A lot of credit to give to the cancer society for allowing this to happen and allowing me to take this thing along that way. Now, from Harlem, we get a change in the laws of America, where millions of dollars are put into patient navigation.

I’ll tell you, just last week […] the American Cancer Society contacted me just 10 days ago because they’ve set up patient navigation pilot programs in 10 international cities, five of which are in Africa, to create patient navigation in the third world. That’s an aside.

The thing has bubbled up from a person who has a background. A key point here is that to take this course that I took, I had to come from a certain background.

People who did not have that background wouldn’t think of this, wouldn’t be challenged like this, wouldn’t care, perhaps, like I did, about it. The truth of the matter is that I came from nowhere. I came from nowhere. I came from just the point that I had a family, a mother and a father that cared, who cared about other people, I had had that. I had a background where I became a first class tennis player.

My mother would say, “Keep your eyes on the ball. Keep your eyes on the ball, and do it over and over again until you get it right. Backhand, cross-court. Forehand, down the line. Serve to the corner. Do that right, you’re going to be national champion.”

Now, putting all these things together, I don’t take personal credit for that. I think I was in an environment that drove me to do certain things, and I’m not bragging about this. This is what happened.

It does give you the sense that things can work if you think about and have the right concerns, the right intentions. At this point, I think patient navigation has become one of the most critical activities to help disadvantaged cancer patients. The American College of Surgeons, several years ago, determined that to have approval as a cancer center in America, you must have a patient navigation program.

Obamacare has, within it, patient navigation. Obamacare came out in 2012 and it had requirements for patient navigation. I don’t want to go too deeply. I think that if you want to talk about me and my relationship to the questions that you raise, it has to do with the point that I had the opportunity to become a high-level trained surgeon, that I came from a particular background that caused me to be concerned about injustice, and particularly, racial injustice, and then applied it to my work.

I really was the principal driver of the point number one, that racial issues in cancer are driven mainly by poverty. That’s a different question to, “How did you get poor?” It’s a different question than, “Why are you poor?”

Surely, the 400 years since 1619 had something to do with that. But that’s a different question. But if you say, “Well, what’s causing you to die is because you are poor.” That’s a different question than, “Why are you poor?”

You do need to act on things related to prejudices and social justice. But you have to act on, what does poverty cause? It causes you to have less knowledge. It causes you to have less access to care.It causes you to be fearful of the environment and all those things.

I would put it this way. If you ask me, what are the causes of health disparities? If you ask the question, I’ve written about this. There are three things that I think, predominantly. Number one, poverty itself. Poverty, put a circle of poverty. Now, draw another circle, overlapping the poverty circle, and call it social injustice. Poverty, social injustice. Add a third circle, the circle of culture, how you behave.

The combination of the three overlapping circles: poverty, social injustice, and culture, drives disparities across the continuum from where you live to when you die. That’s my theory, and if that’s true, then it should guide you about what to do about it.

The challenge is, do we know what to do about that thing? What I said right now, to address poverty, to address social injustice, to understand culture. Sometimes culture is positive. Sometimes it’s negative, but poverty acts through the prism of culture in causing its negative effects. So, to do something about it, you have to understand not only poverty, but culture itself, poverty acting through culture.

The Seventh-day Adventists may be poor, but their culture tells them don’t smoke cigarettes and eat vegetables. Seventh-day culture can trump poverty in some respects. If you’re a Seventh-day Adventist, you probably won’t develop lung cancer, the number one cancer cause in America, because why? You don’t smoke; the culture. That’s a very important element.

If you’re in Harlem, where I work, particularly in the early decades, heavy smoking, soul food. Tastes good, not so good for you—too much fat. Culture becomes very important. To answer this then, you have to deal with poverty and culture.

Then if poverty causes people to have low access to care, which it does, that’s true, but poverty also causes poor housing and less social support, and less knowledge, less education, and risk-promoting lifestyle. You can’t deal with healthcare just within the healthcare system itself.

It’s outside, its universal effect from housing to social support, to education, to lifestyle and behavior. This is the very, very big picture. Now, what’s counter to this is that the medical system has become more and more commercial over time, over decades.

I started as a doctor, interested in helping people, helping the human effort, changing the human condition. As time went on, medicine became overtaken by business, which, the intent of business is to make a profit. I’m not saying that’s bad, but I’m saying that in a thing that is dealing with the human condition, you have to be allowed for concern about the human condition to trump everything else.

When you shift to the point where the healthcare system is on the stock market, which it is right now. It wasn’t when I started. It is now. How then can you put in these concerns and actions related to what I said, to a healthcare system that thrives on profit? And there are some good parts about that. That regulations could occur. But if the healthcare system is on the stock market, then the question is who are you trying to satisfy?

Maybe it’s your stockholders. In fact, it is. In fact, it is. That doesn’t mean that some good things couldn’t come out of that. But we need to shift it back to a human concern. To a concern that an individual patient, irrespective of their ability to pay and their educational level, can in a rapid way, get into and through the healthcare system, particularly when they have a lethal disease.

The other side of it is if you don’t pay for it in the beginning, you will pay for it in the end. There’s no doubt about it. When people die from cancer, it costs them and society. Why not take a change and shift over to a system where you’re directing your thoughts toward the movement of everybody in a timely way to an end point within the healthcare system.

I’m going to give you one final point. There’s something called the mile relay. The mile relay. I know you’re interested in sports like I am. In the mile relay, you have to go a whole mile to win the race, to cross that finish line. In the mile relay, there are four runners. There are four runners. I want you to think of those runners as navigators.

In a mile relay, the runner is carrying a baton. I want you to think of the baton as the patient. In a mile relay you choose runners who can run. The people who you choose as navigators have to have certain capacities and skills and knowledge, intelligence. The first runner holding the baton picks and runs as fast as he or she can and passes the baton from the community to the person who’s giving the test, mammogram.

Pass baton. Now, you can’t drop the baton because you lose the race. You can’t drop it. Now the person, the navigator who does the test, takes the baton to the person who’s going to give the surgery, and drops it between those two runners. Then one takes it to the chemotherapy. Finally, the fourth runner crosses the line. But the race isn’t over until it’s over. Yogi Berra said that. It’s not over until it’s over.

The idea of health care has to be like Yogi Berra. It’s not over until it’s over. And you got to get fast. It’s not over until you carry that patient across the finish line. And that’s the idea of patient navigation. There’s one more element. The navigators are carrying out their individual roles. The first runner, the second runner, third.

To have a really functional navigation system, you have to have a coach. You’ll never win an Olympic race if you don’t have a good coach. The coach is looking at the whole race. Someone overseeing the whole race from beginning to end while runners are carrying it out, carrying the patient through it. So that’s the concept of patient navigation, which I think is one of the real advances in helping people who have disparities in cancer.

RW: Absolutely. And then that remains your legacy. I know we’re running up on time, but Dr. Stewart, I was going to turn this over to you if you had one quick question.

John H. Stewart: Dr. Freeman, it warmed my heart to hear that you won the psychiatry award. I won the psychiatry award upon graduation from Howard Medical School.

HF: Is that right?

JS: Yes. And I also won the Jack White award. And rounded with Mickey Syphax. So yes, that story was amazing. We know that life is all about relationships, as chronicled about your relationship with LaSalle D. Leffall. Dr. Rob Winn is in Richmond, so we’ve got to give a shout out to your relationship with Arthur Ashe. Can you talk to me about how your relationships with those two individuals have shaped you?

HF: Arthur Ashe and LaSalle D. Leffall?

JS: And LaSalle D. Leffall. Yes.

HF: LaSalle was just a little ahead of me in training after a few years. LaSalle was one of the most brilliant people that I’ve ever met. When I went into surgery at that time, I did not know LaSalle in the very beginning. I was relaying to Burke Syphax. Burke Syphax, who was the head of surgery at that time. Burke Syphax was a great teacher to me because he dealt directly with the patient.

He would put his hand on the abdomen to examine the patient. He wouldn’t just talk from the side. He taught me that. Now, when LaSalle came along, I felt like he personified, as a young man, what Syphax was teaching more than anyone else. Those two people had a very deep effect.

In fact, I went into surgery because of Syphax. After seeing LaSalle, he showed me the way that a young person like me might have a guide on how to go forward. So those were two heroes for me in directing my life along the line of surgery. LaSalle and I stayed in touch until he died. I think he was one of the most brilliant people that I have ever met, who stayed on point all the time.

There’s something about life that’s important, you have to stay on course. And he stayed. He never went off course. He kept getting better, and better. He got to be president of the American College of Surgeons. He was well-loved by everyone. He set a wonderful example not only for me, but for many, many, many people after. Those are my heroes.

JS: Great. Thank you so much.

RW: You know I’m down here in Richmond at Massey. So, Walter Lawrence was the other guy who played tennis. Did you guys never get a chance to play?

HF: I never played him but I knew about him. Yeah. I knew about him. I knew Arthur Ashe. You know, I actually played Arthur.

RW: No!

JS: Yes, yes. That is well chronicled.

HF: Arthur was 16 years old and I was 10 years older. I played him in a tournament. He whipped me pretty bad. And I felt so bad about it. The guy, a 16-year-old, it wasn’t that bad. It was a contested match, but I felt bad that a 16-year-old would beat me. Then soon after that, he beat Chris Crawford at Forest Hills after that. So that didn’t feel so bad. He became the world champion. He was really a fine young man and saw him develop with Whirlwind Johnson in Lynchburg.

I met Arthur when he was eight years old, and I saw him develop to be the world champion. I was selected when I was 15, before Arthur, to play tennis by Whirlwind Johnson. They were pushing me as the Black champion to get into USTA. But my mother made me withdraw because Johnson told me to live with him and she wanted me to go to school. So that’s what happened.

RW: That is so cool. You know what, thank you for sharing with us. It’s interesting how humble you are for what you did, because your thing of navigation has actually lighted a new fire in many of us.

Again, I’m the cancer center director, but it’s based on community first, second, third, and fourth. I actually give credit to you and people like you and Dr. Leffal and Dr. Walter Lawrence. So I just want to say thank you for spending some moments with us.

HF: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

JS: Thank you so much. Good to see you, Dr. Freeman.