After writing about the Goat Lady last month, I got the following email from my cousin Mary:
“And your new assignment is ……………Dr. Bledsoe!”
I think every small town has its cast of strange characters, and Dr. Bledsoe, or “The Foot Doctor” as we usually called him, was certainly one of those. Anyway, not one to shy away from a challenge, I set out to see what I could find out about this unusual man who lived in Camden, Arkansas, in the ’40’s and ’50’s.
My own memories of Dr. Bledsoe are of a tall black man who set up shop on the sidewalks of downtown Camden and worked on people’s feet. Mary remembered a hand-lettered sign in front of his house with a unique spelling of “Podiatrist,” a black cape and a big black doctor’s bag.
She remembered her mother and daddy going to a costume party where her daddy dressed as Dr. Bledsoe. Like me, she thought he was a bit creepy but Grancy (our grandmother) told her that all of her friends swore by him.
Unlike the Goat Lady, Dr. Bledsoe is nowhere to be found in Google or Wikipedia, so I had to turn to other sources. My first thought was to email my 1964 Camden High School classmates. That produced a few memories.
Fred recalled that he “dressed strangely in a green overcoat and cap” and said that his father made appointments with him to have his feet treated.
Linda was able to tell me that he lived on South Adams in a shotgun house on a hill with wooden steps going up to it. She also remembered the robe or cape and said that he wore beads around his neck and his hair in dreadlocks. No wonder we were afraid of him. In the 1950’s we’d never seen anyone in dreadlocks.
“I heard that Dr. Bledsoe was a qualified podiatrist and that he also treated all kinds of illnesses for the black people who were leery of white doctors,” said Jeanne.
My best source of information was my Uncle Bill Reynolds, my mother’s youngest brother. According to Uncle Bill, the local rumor was that Dr. Bledsoe hailed from some exotic place like Egypt, Ethiopia or India.
“When I was a senior in high school in 1945 I worked at Watts Department Store after school and on Saturdays,” he said. “The top floor at Watts was mostly storage for out of style clothes, etc. One day I went up there to get something for one of the clerks and was startled to walk into a room where Mrs. John Watts was stretched out on a cot and Dr. Bledsoe was working on her feet. That’s the only incidence I can verify that he worked on the feet of the Camden elite, but that leads me to believe there were probably others as well.”
Uncle Bill also told me about a time soon after World War II when the blacks began to organize in protest groups in the South.
“They would go around to various white churches, mostly in the cities, to see if they would be allowed to worship. Many of the more fundamentalist churches turned them away, and often an ugly scene ensued.”
He said that the Session of the First Presbyterian Church called a joint meeting of the elders and deacons to discuss how the church would handle such a situation if they were ever faced with it. The consensus was that anyone who came to worship would be welcome, but those who came to protest would be turned away.
“It was during that era that Dr. Bledsoe began coming to First Presbyterian Church at the old church on Spring Street and sitting on the back row,” said Uncle Bill.
So it appears that Dr. Bledsoe was somewhat of a pioneer. Not only was his service a forerunner to the modern pedicure, minus the nail polish, the little whirlpool bath and the massage chair, but he was also the original member of the “Back Row Gang” at the First Presbyterian Church.