Honoring Dr. Henry Floyd Gamble on his 161st Birthday


Henry Floyd Gamble

If you Google my grandfather's name, you will find these articles:






In this piece I will try to imagine the lives of some of his family members, particularly his mother and maternal grandmother.

My grandfather was born on a plantation in North Garden, Virginia in the midst of the Civil War, on January 16, 1862. He was one of ten children. Henry's father, Henry Harmon Gamble, was a foreman on the estate; his mother, Willie Ann Howard, had been enslaved on the Howard's Neck Plantation in Goochland County, Virginia. Up to this point I have not been able to find the name of the estate where the Gamble family lived. I also don't know whether Willie Ann was sold from Howard's Neck to the North Garden plantation. However, I do know that Willie Ann's mother, Eliza Howard, was also enslaved at Howard's Neck. Willie Ann's father was also her master/owner.

So here I am left to speculate. Was Eliza raped by her master, and was her daughter sold to another plantation? North Garden is just a few miles from Howard's Neck, which is just a few miles from Thomas Jefferson's plantation Monticello. I can only imagine the number of relatives I have who are descended from our nation's third president!

After the war, the Gamble family settled near Charlottesville, Virginia. Imagine the traumas that Willie Ann carried with her - the trauma of being born to a slave mother who was probably a rape survivor, the trauma of being sold to a strange plantation away from her mother, and yes, the trauma of being married to a plantation foreman who carried a whip around. Her husband, Henry Harmon Gamble, had a Scots-Irish father and a Native-American mother, so he did not identify as African American. But he took a wife who was half European and half African - and probably not full-blooded African at that.

It has been extremely difficult to find information on the name of the plantation where the Gambles lived before the war, or even the name of Willie Ann Howard's father. Several articles stated that her father was her master, but none have given that master's name. I learned that Howard's Neck Plantation was acquired by Major Allen Howard in 1741. He marched with George Washington (another infamous slave owner) during the Revolutionary War, and owned six (!) plantations. He died in 1760, so it could have been one of his descendants who fathered Willie Ann, who was born in 1837. One son, William, continued to live on the estate after his father's death; and William's grandson, William Howard Carter, owned the property when Willie Ann was conceived.

Some of the slave houses at Howard's Neck can be seen on this website:


It is amazing to me how some of these research websites are more concerned with the architecture of the buildings on the plantations than with the names of the people enslaved there. It is clear that the big secret that everyone is keeping is the fact that these slave owners and their sons were fathering children with their slaves. They don't want us to know the names of these slave-owning families, because they don't want us to come knocking at the door to claim our inheritance. They are, in fact, terrified that this might happen.

I can only wonder what my grandfather witnessed during the Civil War that inspired him to become a surgeon. The articles state that his father's life savings of $500 were deposited in the Flanagan Bank. In 1875, when my grandfather was 13, the bank collapsed and the family savings were lost. (Can you imagine?!) Suddenly my grandfather had to work to help support his large family, and his education was paused. According to the archives collection of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History website, Henry Floyd Gamble said about his father:

 “… having all his savings in the bank, he lost it all in the failure.  The payment on his property and the support of a wife and ten children took all that Father and children could make.  For that reason, I could not attend school, but hired a night teacher while I worked at the University of Virginia in the home of Dr. John Staige Davis, professor of medicine in the University.  The present Prof. J.S. Davis, Jr., the son of my employer used to teach me and really showed great interest in my progress, till his father prohibited him from giving me further lessons.  Nevertheless from ’79 to ’82, I made progress under my night teacher.  By 1882, I had saved about $50 and entered the preparatory department of Lincoln University.”

In 1884, Henry Floyd Gamble entered the university track at Lincoln University, from which he graduated with his B.A. degree in 1888. He then pursued a medical degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He received an M.D. degree in 1891, thus becoming the 4th African American to graduate from Yale School of Medicine.

After graduating from Yale, Gamble returned to Virginia and began his own practice in Charlottesville. Not long after opening his practice, he received a communication from his sister, Anna. She had been on a visit in Charleston, West Virginia and had suddenly become ill. After traveling by train, he was able to examine her and had diagnosed that she suffered a twisted cystic ovary. Supported by the local physician, the two doctors performed surgery on Anna at the Charleston General Hospital. In an article appearing in the Journal of the National Medical Association, my cousin Robert Gamble wrote of his grandfather, “His acumen and ability as a surgeon won him immediate hospital privileges."

In 1891, Henry relocated to Charleston and opened his own practice in medicine and surgery. As the capital of West Virginia, Charleston had a sizable population that was still growing. Gamble earned a reputation of being a stellar surgeon and also published articles on topics, such as Caesarean section and thoracic aneurisms, in medical journals.

My grandfather was fluent in German (as am I) and Hebrew. He was an avid reader of books whose topics ranged from philosophy and poetry to agriculture and medicine. A successful businessman and property owner, his professional interests expanded beyond the medical field. Because blacks were excluded from professional organizations and also received inferior, if any, medical treatment due to racial discrimination, Gamble was highly active in leadership concerning blacks and health. His activism led him to co-create the West Virginia State Medical Association, an African-American organization. He joined the National Medical Association (NMA), of which he would serve as Chairman of the Executive Board, assist in creating its constitution, and was elected president in 1911.

My grandfather with the NMA of 1911. (Seated in the center with the white hair.)

My grandfather had three wives. My grandmother, Nina Hortense Clinton, was his third wife. The grandson of his second wife, Robert, wrote in his article:

"My father, Henry Floyd, Jr., tells me that Dr. Gamble was an authoritative and stubborn man who did not stop giving him thrashings until after he was 18 years old. As a young man he used to drive his father to the hospital and carry his instruments in a large case, and on one occasion he saw him slap a nurse in the operating theater, because she broke technique. He was careful where hygiene was concerned, and practiced an old habit of sucking water and salt into his nostrils several times a day. I have since learned that this practice of cleaning one's nostrils is part of the ablution performed by Muslims throughout Africa, and that this practice is still done by many older men from the south.

Occasionally, during the prohibition he would send my father on errands to procure moonshine whiskey for his house guests, but he was given to moderation."

What my cousin did not include in his article was the fact that his father became a very violent man, and a raging alcoholic. Those "thrashings" perpetrated by my grandfather made an impact, and the violence made its way down through the generations. My cousin was actually murdered by his pregnant wife in an act of self-defense. He had perpetrated so much violence against her that she saw her only opportunity to escape when he put his gun down on his desk and walked away. Ironically, Robert's father had pointed his father's gun at my grandmother in a drunken rage. My mother was 11 years old at the time, and was trying to practice the piano, which interfered with Floyd's enjoyment of the radio. He told her to stop. When my grandmother told her to continue, Floyd went and got the gun. My grandfather put his son out of the house that night.

We can guess how young Henry learned about thrashings. His grandmother was probably beaten as a slave, and she probably administered beatings to her children. This form of "discipline" has been handed down through the generations. I am sure my grandfather experienced his share of beatings as a child.

I am already seeing the images of the made-for-TV series flashing through my mind. It is my sincere hope that my ancestors are pleased with my work, and will continue to bless me.

Happy Birthday, Grandpa!


Nina Kennedy is a concert pianist, orchestral conductor, and award-winning filmmaker. She holds a master’s degree from the Juilliard School. Her memoir, Practicing for Love, is a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. The sequel, Practice What You Preach, is available at infemnity.com/shop.


Popular posts from this blog

Anne Thompson-Scretching Stars in "OVERCOME"

Part 4 of the Writings of Leota Henson Turner