In honor of Black History Month, AFMC is looking at some of Arkansas’ Black health care leaders. Today, we’re talking about Napoleon Bonaparte Houser, one of the most prominent Black physicians in the Delta region. His legacy, which started in the early 1900s, involved practicing medicine in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, where he later opened up a drug store and supported local non-profits. Napoleon Houser fathered a legacy of providing health care services to the Black community, and his efforts paved the way for many Black-led organizations in the Delta region.
Napoleon Bonaparte Houser was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1869. He grew up working on his parents’ farm, and at age 14, he began working as a secretary at his father’s brick masonry business. While continuing to work part-time for his father, Houser attended Biddle University in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he soon became interested in medicine. He decided to pursue his passion and began searching for a career in the medical field. After he graduated college, he attended Leonard Medical School at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he would eventually receive his medical license from the North Carolina Medical Board. He was one step closer to making his dream a reality. He began his medical practice in Charlotte.
Napoleon Bonaparte Houser began his practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, before moving to Helena, Arkansas, where he was regarded as one of the most prominent Black physicians in the Delta region.
From 1891 to 1901, he worked with Biddle University, was a supervisor at Good Samaritan Hospital (the first privately funded Black hospital in North Carolina) for three years, and served one year as president (and two as secretary) of the North Carolina Colored Medical Association, which Houser himself helped found.
As the Arkansas Delta’s population and opportunities grew, Houser moved his practice to Helena, Arkansas in 1901. According to a 1911 profile, he saw Helena’s “climate, fertile soil, and teeming population of the race” as “a veritable Promised Land” when racial tensions were high in North Carolina. At the time, Helena was a booming Mississippi River town in the Arkansas Delta. It was the center of the agricultural industry, dominated by cotton and hardwood timber. It was also the legislative seat of Phillips County, which had a mostly agricultural population that was over 78% Black.
Houser found continued success as one of the most prominent Black physicians in the Delta region. In 1904 or 1908 (depending on the source), he opened Black Diamond Drug Store in downtown Helena for $7500 (around $200,000 today). Once the store became more well-established, Houser claimed that the drug store brought in around $2000 in sales each month. In 1910, Houser became president of a business league in Helena and invested in local property and stock. He also began to be more active in local fraternal organizations, including the Prince Hall Masons, the Knights of Pythias, and the Mosaic Templars of America.
Houser founded the Black Diamond Drug Store in downtown Helena. His store became one of the most profitable drug stores in the county, earning nearly $2000 of revenue each month.
The Elaine Massacre took place in 1919, just miles from where Houser lived, causing him to return to his home in North Carolina. He continued his practice there for another 20 years before his death on August 28, 1939. Upon his death, the Charlotte Observer revered him as “one of the largest practices of any Black doctor in the Carolinas.”
Photos from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas website.
Research and inspiration for this blog post came from former AFMC CEO Ray Hanley.