Dr. Emma Rochelle Wheeler

The flicker of the candlelight is most beautiful when the electricity is out and the glow of the cell phone cannot be turned on. It is the small light of a single candle that shows a way to the electrical box where the power can be flipped on. Often it is so with the lives of those who dare to stand up and fight the darkness of our society; lives like Dr. Emma Rochelle Wheeler’s. Perhaps Emma hoped to see equality, like electricity, shine throughout the nation in her lifetime as she, an African American new physician, was opening Wheeler Hospital, one of less than half a dozen black hospitals in the nation at the turn of the 20th century Chattanooga, Tennessee where prejudice against a skin color was a way of life, racism a cultural norm, and women had no place in the men’s world.


Emma Rochelle Wheeler was born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1882. As a little girl, her father took her to a female doctor for an eye examination. Narratives depict that it was then that a flicker was ignited in Emma. There were plenty of doctors in 1900s Florida but very few were female. Emma decided she too wanted to defy the odds. A friendship kindled among the two women: a white woman who made her own path despite many voices telling her where her place was, and an African American girl living in a world where strict rules separated the black from the white in society, family, culture and the church pews.

With this unlikely friendship, Emma graduated Mehary Medical College, and in 1905 married a fellow physician John Wheeler. Together they moved to Chattanooga where they practiced medicine in the impoverished and segregated black community where mortality rate was the highest in the city. Seeing their plight, Emma purchased two lots on the corner of Douglas and Eighth Street with her own savings and in 1915 she opened a nursery, maternity and surgical ward where the acute and chronically ill could be treated. Solely managed, operated and funded by Dr. Wheeler, Walden Hospital thrived financially and economically, and in 1925 even introduced a prepaid hospitalization plan which remains a forerunner of managed care programs today. Dr. Emma Rochelle Wheeler died in September 1957. Like a small flicker can light up the entire room, so was her journey, though often subjugated and oppressed, left a legacy behind her that withstands time. She never did see what perhaps she hoped for: equality and justice for all. But five years after her death, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” jolted the lawn of the White House, and fifty years after that the first African American president was inaugurated there.

By Anna Kholod.
Anna is a volunteer in the Media Production Department at RTTN

Source: Cory Turner’s “Emma Rochelle Wheeler (1882-1957)” in BlackPast https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/wheeler-dr-emma-rochelle-1882-1957/

RTTN church has the wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the love of God to our Emma Wheeler family through monthly “READY” camps for children; Family Feast and Fellowship Nights; summer activities such as Water War Day, Fun in the Sun, Back to School Carnival and Light the Night as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas Share. We provide food, clothing, life skills coaching, GED prep and testing, friendship and the sense of family as well as transportation to and from church.