Forty-six years after becoming the first African-American to graduate from the College of Pharmacy at the Medical University of South Carolina, James Hodges returned to share his story as the college celebrates Black History Month.
"You have to understand, the racial tension was high during the time I was here, but I was here for a purpose. And in order for me to do what I needed to do, I had to keep my focus on my work," the retired pharmacy owner said in an interview.
The year he graduated, 1971, was just six years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and three years after approval of the Civil Rights Act, both aimed at protecting the rights of African-Americans. Richard Nixon was president, and Charles Manson and his "family" were in the news. So were huge Vietnam War protests.
It was also a time of significant change at MUSC. In the early 1970s, African-Americans broke barriers by graduating not only from the College of Pharmacy but also the colleges of Medicine, Dental Medicine and Nursing.
Hodges was proud to be part of that change. He was well aware of the societal issues of the day but focused on school. "I looked at myself as a student," he said. "I realized I could probably attend some [political] meetings, but in order for me to get my work done, I had to study my lessons."
That commitment to putting in the effort to get where he wanted to go had its roots in his childhood in rural Colleton County. He described his early life to current pharmacy students in a Black History Month speech in Baruch Auditorium, focusing on what it takes to succeed. "I grew up on a farm. I was taught to work," he told them.
Hodges described his parents as uneducated but smart. They insisted that he go to college. While he was at Claflin University, a recruiter for the MUSC College of Pharmacy came to campus. "I asked him for information. I applied," Hodges said.
He got in, but told his parents he wasn't sure he wanted to go because he had an out-of-town job offer. Hodges' father told him to go to MUSC and study pharmacy, a field that would allow him to own a business one day and control his own future.
Hodges told the crowd in Baruch Auditorium he's glad he listened. "Young people, obedience is better than a sacrifice. If you're obedient to those around you, you listen. Try to see the good part of it, try to understand it. You won't go wrong. Whatever you'd like to do, just understand the ins and outs of it."
That's exactly what Hodges did after arriving at MUSC. "When I started pharmacy school, my classmates were right on it. They were answering questions and whatnot. I noticed that I was a little bit slower in answering questions," Hodges said.
"So I asked the students, 'How do you know all that?'"
He learned that they'd all worked in pharmacies. "I approached the dean and said, 'If you can help me get a job I'd be appreciative so I can begin to learn about a drugstore.' A couple of days later he did," Hodges said. "You've got to find somebody who will champion your cause. We have to help each other."
After graduation, Hodges worked as a pharmacist for several years and decided he was ready to buy his own place: Cash Discount Drug Store in St. George. He found another champion in the man who was selling the business. "He said, 'You know how things are, and I want you to be a success at this venture. Because it's a lot of money and there's a lot involved in this.'"
He suggested that Hodges ease into his new role by just working on the weekends at first, meeting customers so they'd be comfortable when Hodges took over. It worked. Hodges built a loyal following and ran the drugstore for 30 years, becoming known for his skill at compounding, which involves creating customized medicines for customers. "I was never in a hurry. I wanted to do it right," Hodges said.
He and his wife taught their children the values the couple had grown up with. "We raised our family there in the drugstore. We taught them how to work." Hodges also won a seat on the Dorchester County School Board, which he still holds today.
In 2007, a doctor diagnosed Hodges with lung cancer. "But God is a good, he enabled me to come right back," the pharmacist told students at MUSC. "I thank God for my health. Even though I dispensed a lot of medicine, I don't take any now. Just aspirin or cough syrup once in a while."
Hodges finally sold the drugstore in 2014. "It's best to sell when you're doing your best," he said.
"You have to have a plan, and I stuck with my plan. You need to bloom where you're planted. That's what I tried to do: bloom where I was planted."
African-American history at MUSC, from the Waring Historical Library
1971 - First African-American graduated from the College of Medicine, Bernard W. Deas, Jr.
1971 - First African-American graduated from the College of Pharmacy, James L. Hodges
1972 - First African-American graduated from the College of Nursing, Rosslee Douglas
1973 - First African-American woman graduated from the College of Medicine, Delores Gibbs
1974 - First African-American graduated from the College of Dental Medicine, George McTeer