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Michael Shadid: A Syrian Socialist

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This blog post is co-authored by Dr. Akram Khater, Director, Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies and professor of History at NC State, and Sarah Soleim, a PhD student in Public History at NC State specializing in twentieth-century United States history. Sarah’s last posted on Migration and health. Akram last posted on teaching the history of Lebanon.

Photograph of Michael Shadid in 1956. Gumm, John, Photograph 2012.201.B1237.0641, December 13, 1956, Oklahoma Historical Society, http://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc517734/.

Photograph of Michael Shadid in 1956.
Gumm, John, Photograph 2012.201.B1237.0641, December 13, 1956, Oklahoma Historical Society, http://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc517734/.

In May the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a celebration of “successful” Lebanese immigrants. Labeled “Lebanese Diaspora Energy 2016,” the self-congratulatory speeches, quizzical awards, and elaborate receptions were meant to highlight and applaud the financial and professional successes of immigrants. The narrative, broadcast and lauded from the stage, was of Lebanese entrepreneurship and its unbridled embrace of the pursuit of wealth. This echoes much of the rags-to-riches stories peddled about Lebanese immigration, past and present. Such stories are certainly real, but fall far short of telling the whole story of immigration. They give a false impression that accumulation of money was/is the only reality of immigrant life and work, and that it is the only thing worthy of recognition. Such homogenizing and fetishizing narratives ignore the far more complex and rich experiences that define Lebanese immigration. Perhaps the most glaring elisions are of those individuals who shunned the pursuit of money and in its place sought after social justice and equality for their immigrant community and beyond. Lebanese diasporic community organizers, avant garde intellectuals, leftist activists and pacifists were instrumental in these alternative pursuits and in transforming their host societies and envisioning a more progressive and equitable Lebanon. Yet, they were nowhere to be seen on that stage.

Among these unsung pioneers is Dr. Michael Shadid, a medical doctor who spent his adult life in the first half of the 20th century working to bring healthcare to the rural poor in America, and to overcome racial prejudice against Lebanese Americans. Born in Jdeidet Marj’youn (Lebanon) in 1882 to a poor family, Shadid’s childhood made him keenly aware of the devastating impact of poverty. As he narrated in his various autobiographical writings, the tragic and premature death of nine of his eleven siblings due to “summer complaint” (dysentery afflicting children and infants and caused by contamination of food and poor hygiene) could have been avoided with access to affordable doctors. It was only his mother’s decision to move to the city of Beirut in 1893 that gave him and his family a chance to improve their lot. A scholarship to attend the Syrian Protestant College (which would later become the American University of Beirut) gave Shadid the education needed to dream of a different future for his family and himself. His mother and surviving sister and brother worked hard to help educate him, but he soon recognized that the only way he could attain a medical degree would be in America.

With his mind set on becoming a doctor, he traveled to the United States in 1898 with his sister and worked as peddler for the next four years to collect enough money to pay his way through medical school. Within two years he sent for his mother and brother, and paid back a loan from his uncle in America that funded his migration. But failures punctuated his early years. His cousins in New Jersey invested his savings in a failed venture, and his brother could not make a go of it as a cobbler in Illinois. So, he loaned his brother a thousand dollars to purchase “a hundred and sixty acres in Greer County, Oklahoma” for the latter to become a farmer there along with the rest of Shadid’s family. Yet despite these setbacks, by 1903 he had managed to save enough to attend medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

At Washington University, Shadid became exposed to socialist ideas which affirmed his personal experiences with racial and social injustices along the roads of middle America, and gave him purpose and direction for his future activism and politics. Shadid and his medical school friends spent their free time reading about the socialist and cooperative movements spreading throughout the rural United States. The efforts of union and cooperative leaders resonated with Shadid, and he felt that they were well in-line with his own goals as an aspiring physician. In his autobiography, he wrote that socialists leaders and physicians embodied “a desire to help in improving the condition – social as well as physical – of the common people.”[1] Admiration became a conviction and by the time he graduated medical school in 1908, Shadid was an active member in the Socialist Party.

Dr. Shadid spent the next several years working as a private physician in several towns in Oklahoma, including Stecker, Oklahoma City, and Ethelborn, and by 1912 he was ready to settle down and establish a permanent practice. During a trip to Chicago, Shadid sought out Otto Branstetter, a leader in the National Socialist Party to set-up a speaking tour in Oklahoma among the thriving socialist communities, which would allow him also to search for a suitable place to move his young family. For two weeks, Shadid criss-crossed Oklahoma staying with local socialist “comrades” and giving speeches in schoolhouses. While most communities showed him hospitality, in one town, he received threats from “one hundred percenters” (native born Americans) who warned that they would lynch “the first Socialist agitator who came to that neck of the woods.” Fortunately, Shadid survived his visit without violence, and by its end, the speaking tour proved successful for Shadid, and one of his new acquaintances suggested that he would find a welcoming Socialist community in Carter, Oklahoma.[2]

However, Dr. Shadid still encountered racial prejudice in Carter. A competing physician repeatedly attempted to use Shadid’s “foreignness” to discredit him professionally, but, despite this, Dr. Shadid was able to establish a prosperous practice in Carter. He found acceptance and tolerance among the socialist farmers of the hard scrabble Oklahoman land. He later reflected that among the farmers “it made no difference that I was of foreign birth and a Syrian.” So in Carter he continued to be involved in Socialist politics without fear of losing the support of his patients.[3]

Shadid’s speaking tours in the 1930s and 1940s



 

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In his twenty years of work as a medical practitioner, Dr. Shadid developed sympathy for the burdens his rural neighbors faced, especially the lack of affordable and quality healthcare available to them–which harkened to his early experiences in Lebanon. Dr. Shadid’s biography is filled with mentions of patients having to sacrifice their crop, livestock, or home to pay for medical care. Furthermore, Shadid was struck by how many times his colleagues pushed for unnecessary operations simply to collect fees for the work. Many more physicians provided inadequate care because they were simply not up-to-date with current advances in medical care. While Dr. Shadid took time off to attend post-graduate training, not all physicians were willing to put a lucrative practice on hold to pay for and attend similar training.

 Postcard featuring Elk City Community Hospital. Citation: Anna L. B. Korn Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division.

Postcard featuring Elk City Community Hospital.
Citation: Anna L. B. Korn Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division.

The problems facing physicians and patients did not appear all that different than those experienced by the farmers Dr. Shadid met throughout Oklahoma. Faced with the rising cost of farm equipment farmers created cooperative associations so they could easily share resources. The success of these cooperatives profoundly affected how Shadid envisioned reform in his own profession. Building off these models, Shadid proposed the building of a cooperative hospital in Elk City that would be patient owned and ran. In October 1929, while the country was moments away from an economic crisis, Dr. Shadid invited farmers to a meeting to discuss his idea. The first iteration of the community hospital involved the creation and furnishing of a hospital and a discount on services, with the eventual goal of eliminating fees altogether. If 2,000 individuals invested fifty dollars in the hospital, they would have the funds necessary to build and furnish a hospital, hire speciality physicians on a salary, and lower the cost of their care. A medical manager–Dr. Shadid in its early years–would oversee daily operations, but a board of directors, chosen by investors, would maintain final say on decisions. By May 1930, Dr. Shadid had sold 700 memberships, and work began on a hospital.

Shadid tried to involve area doctors in the cooperative hospital, but many were unwilling to sacrifice the profitable fees they received in their current practice. Local doctors tried convincing community members that Dr. Shadid had no intention of building a hospital. This made it extremely difficult for the hospital to recruit new members, and Shadid’s own practice suffered due to such claims. Because of growing concern over the hospital, Shadid ceased moving forward until he received a loan from the Oklahoma Farmers Union in the spring of 1931 and the Community Hospital finally opened in August of that year.

Throughout the 1930s, the Community Hospital grew despite continued attempts to professionally discredit Dr. Shadid and efforts nationwide by the American Medical Association to restrain cooperative medicine.[4] Newspapers reported on the success of Community Hospital throughout the United States, and Dr. Shadid took to the road throughout the 1930s and 1940s to speak about the significance of cooperative medicine. He attended meetings of local cooperative associations and Kiwanis clubs and spoke at universities and hospitals across the United States and Canada. His presentations recounted the experiences of Elk City’s Community Hospital and provided audiences with “how-tos” on starting their own cooperative hospital. In 1939, Dr. Shadid also published his first autobiography, A Doctor for the People, that advocated for the cooperative medicine movement.

With his reputation growing, Dr. Shadid decided to run for Congress in 1940 as a New Deal Democrat. His aim was to enable the government to make start-up loans available to cooperative hospitals and fund cooperative memberships for low income individuals and families. During his campaign, Dr. Shadid endured libel and rumors, most of which were explicitly nativist and racist and he lost in the congressional primary to the incumbent.

Dr. Shadid continued to advocate for cooperative medicine throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Along with other leaders in the cooperative medicine movement, the Co-operative Health Federation of America was founded in 1946 and Dr. Shadid served as the first president of the organization, and his son, Fred, took over as the medical director of the Community Hospital. In 1949, Dr. Shadid began work on opening a hospital in his hometown, Jdeidet Marj’youn, fulfilling a long-term goal of improving healthcare in Lebanon. Replaced by programs like Blue Cross, the Community Hospital stopped operating as a cooperative in the 1950s, but remained a reminder that cooperative medicine could work.[5]

Dr. Shadid’s story is often told from the perspective of the health care profession and little note is given of his immigrant background. However, Dr. Shadid’s life serves as a reminder that the stories of Lebanese immigrants are diverse and varied, shaped by unique and individual choices. While he started his new life in America as a peddler, he did not seek wealth and upward mobility, but was profoundly shaped by the struggles of the poor and sought a society where many could come together to fulfill one anothers’ needs.

“American democracy gave Dr. Shadid a chance to succeed, too, but he has made his success serve the people, not exploit them.” – Salom Rizk in Syrian Yankee, 1943.[6]

 

Sources

[1] Michael A. Shadid, Crusading Doctor: My Fight for Cooperative Medicine (Normon: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956), 25.

[2] Shadid, Crusading Doctor, 42.

[3] Ibid., 49.

[4] Steve Boisson, “Dr. Shadid’s Maverick Medicine,” American History 43, no. 1 (April 2008): 64.

[5] Shadid, Crusading Doctor.

[6] Rizk, Salom, Syrian Yankee (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1943).

 

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