NewsBlack History Month


How the legacy of Colorado’s first Black surgeon lives on in Denver’s Five Points

Dr. Bernard F. Gipson Sr.’s accomplishments – from treating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to having a clinic named after him – defied racism and continue to inspire
Dr Bernard Gipson
Posted at 5:45 PM, Feb 23, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-23 21:14:23-05

DENVER — A portrait hanging on the wall reminds Candace Lartigue of who came before.

“When I walk in the doors here, I am part of a legacy,” said Lartigue, a nurse practitioner at Denver Health’s Eastside Family Health Center.

In the heart of the historic Five Points neighborhood, African American history runs deep. And at the country’s second oldest community health clinic, that history revolves around one man: Dr. Bernard F. Gipson Sr.

“As a Black woman working in healthcare, you don't see a ton of representation,” Lartigue said. Even today, “you don't see a lot of Black surgeons.”

Especially not like Dr. Gipson, who became one of the first Black surgeons in the country, at a time when African Americans were deep in the Civil Rights movement.

“There have been a ton of contributions to civil rights, to the health equity movement, to social justice, coming out of Denver,” she said. And Dr. Gipson played a part.

“He actually took care of Dr. Martin Luther King, I think it was a second visit out here, for altitude sickness,” Lartigue said.

Dr Gipson portrait
A portrait of Dr. Bernard F. Gipson Sr. hangs in the Denver Health Eastside Family Health Center, which bears his name.

Denver7 wanted to learn more about Dr. Gipson’s life and legacy. That’s when we discovered that the man himself preserved his story before he died.

Tucked away into boxes donated to the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, photographs, letters and certifications share a glimpse of his monumental achievements.

“People see the black and white photos and they're like, ‘Oh yeah, that was a long time ago’ and we're like 'No, no,'” said Dexter Nelson III, the library’s museums and archives supervisor.

Nelson and his team are dedicated to preserving Denver’s African American history, but even they hadn’t heard of Dr. Gipson.

When they pulled these boxes from the archives, we learned about the doctor together.

Blair Caldwell archives
At the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, the legacy of Dr. Bernard F. Gipson Sr. lives on in boxes of photographs, letters and other physical markers of his accomplishments.

The most stunning part of the collection: Audio recordings of Dr. Gipson telling his own life story 50 years ago.

“I was really just blown away with his tenacity,” Nelson said.

Gipson was born in Texas in the 1920s, as the youngest of nine children. He grew up poor, but his family rallied around him to get an education.

In the audio recordings, Dr. Gipson said his career in medicine began when he was only 11or 12 years old.

A Black doctor visited his town, and later performed life-saving surgery on him. Dr. Gipson said, “to influence a youngster like I was at that time, with no money, that I become educated... does go to show, as we move along in life, that we must be careful because you can't tell who is watching and may get an idea.”

But his journey would be long, and rife with racism.

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Gipson left Texas to study at the most prestigious university a Black man could attend at the time: Morehouse University.

He completed all of the requirements to go to medical school. But then, World War II threatened to end his career before it started.

Army recruiters told him he needed to report for duty. But Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse, made some phone calls to help Gipson. It was a Black Lieutenant Colonel, Campbell Johnson, who deferred Gipson’s military service so that he could study medicine.

“These men had the hard knocks, and they knew what we were going through, even though we were supposedly having it better,” Gipson said.

At first, Gipson hoped to study in his home state of Texas. But he said the State of Texas wouldn’t allow a Black man to attend the University of Texas. Instead, Texas actually paid him to study at Howard University.

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"I don’t know how I kept from being knocked down by some of these experiences. But each time, I seem to have gotten strength to do a little bit more,” Gipson said.

While at Howard, he studied under Dr. Charles Drew, a pioneer who invented new methods for preserving blood plasma, making large-scale blood banks possible. He was also the first Black professor of surgery at Howard.

“I had never heard of a Black surgeon in my life,” Gipson said. Learning from Dr. Drew inspired him to take on that specialty.

He went on to intern at Harlem Hospital in New York, and complete a surgical residency at Howard’s Freedmen's Hospital, as well as the U.S. Public Health Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Gipson and colleagues
Dr. Bernard F. Gipson Sr. stands to the far right alongside other Black doctors.

From there, the military brought Gipson to Colorado in 1954.

"They had never had a Black Chief of Surgery at Lowry Air Force Base,” Gipson said.

Dr. Gipson had already passed the first part of his American Board of Surgery specialty board — the highest board for surgeons in the country. But he still faced racism.

When he traveled to Kansas City to get his final board certification, the hotel where he expected to stay turned him away.

“Can you imagine having studied for five years postgraduate and gotten all your credentials ready, on the final lap... you’re welcomed to the hotel, and a little girl telling you can't sleep?” Dr. Gipson said.

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Nevertheless, he became Colorado’s first Black surgeon to achieve the highest certifications. And after his time serving in the military, he went on the start his own family practice in Denver. There, he treated patients until his retirement in 1995.

Dr. Gipson was 93 years old when he died in 2015.

He left behind a lasting legacy — preserved in boxes at the Blair-Caldwell library.

Nelson, the archives supervisor, said the goal of preserving stories like this is to inspire and inform visitors. Now that he’s learned about Dr. Gipson, he hopes to pull these records out again, for a museum exhibit.

The goal: To show that “people from humble beginnings came up and did amazing things, and that you can do that, too,” he said.

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