Dr. Thomas Matthew was an important and controversial figure in New York City during the 1960’s and 1970s, but somehow many New Yorkers haven’t heard of him. Dr. Thomas Matthew was born in a basement next to Harlem’s Knickerbocker Hospital after his mother was refused service due to her being a Black woman. Dr. Matthew’s father actually worked as a janitor at Knickerbocker Hospital. Dr. Matthew attended Bronx Science High School and Manhattan College, becoming the first Black graduate of both schools. He went on to attend to Meharry Medical College in Nashville and completed his internship at St Louis City Hospital. Dr Thomas Matthew successfully became the first Black neurosurgeon in the United States and the head of neurosurgery at Coney Island Hospital.
Aside from his wide array of accomplishments, Dr. Matthew was an activist and founded NEGRO, National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization. He advocated against the use of welfare programs for the advancement of Black people and pushed “Black capitalism” as the solution. 63 members of NEGRO squatted on Ellis Island which landed in a victory of the organization’s permission to develop the island as a rehabilitation center for prisoners and people with drug addiction. One of the major focal points of Dr. Matthew’s solution for Black advancement through capitalism was the creation of different businesses to employ Black people through, such as textile factories, chemical plants, and other small businesses in cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. Dr. Matthew would go on to found the Interfaith Hospital in Jamaica, Queens to contribute towards more jobs.
In 1967, Dr. Matthew observed the lack of public transportation in South Jamaica, Queens, the neighborhood his hospital served directly. According to Dr Matthew, 50,000 Black people in the area had to walk up to 10 blocks to reach the nearest line, then transfer to buses, and end up paying up to three fares just to get to the nearest hospitals in the area. Black patients in the area became frustrated with the complicated and costly trips to the hospital. In response to the adverse effects of this lack of convenient transportation in South Jamaica, Dr. Matthew stated “the result is that they don’t come, and they don’t get proper medical care.” Dr. Matthew began running two 1954 Ford school buses to help with community requests of additional routes, that were met with no responses from the Transit Authority and private lines in the area. The bus company only charged 20 cent fares and ran from the predominantly Black neighborhood of South Jamaica directly to Interfaith Hospital, 175-10 88th Avenue, the border of Jamaica Estates, a predominantly white neighborhood.
Dr. Matthew’s reasoning for not applying for a franchise although it was a required by the City of New York was precise and calculated: he simply did not want it to be delayed by “bureaucratic red tape:”
“Detroit is burning with $300 million worth of damage in a ‘hot’ riot, he said. “What we are in the process of doing is creating a ‘cool’ riot. The cool riot, which we purposefully undertake, is doing things that will be productive for our group and all society, but couldn’t be done through bureaucratic red tape.”Negro Surgeon Starts Bus In Line Without Franchise, New York Times, November 2, 1967
Reporters reached out to Morris Tarshis, the Director of Franchises for New York City, but he was never reached. A representative of the Transit Authority said an application submitted by Dr. Matthew for his franchise, would most likely be discarded to rid the city of competition. Dr. Matthew’s expectation was to be arrested at the inaugural run of his bus operation known as Blue and White bus line. Officers ignored the run of the line as Black people in the neighborhood cheered happily at the sight of the new bus line. A white shopkeeper in South Jamaica stated that he believed the Blue and White bus line would increase more traffic to businesses in the area, with a Black real estate worker also claiming that property values would rise because of it. Dr. Matthew would go on to create a Blue and White Bus Line for Black residents of the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, California.
In 1969, Dr Matthew was sentenced to six months in prison for willful failure to file an income tax return. After serving 59 days, President Nixon granted special clemency to Dr. Matthew:
Dr. Matthew had contended that he would not contribute money to a Government whose official policy was the continuation of welfare. Since being released from prison he has paid the $9,000 cited in the indictment and says that he will pay the rest, which has been estimated at $150,000, when the Internal Revenue Service sets the amount.NEGRO’s Tactician, New York Times, August 20, 1970
In September 1972, Interfaith Hospital lost its certification and became defunct. Later in 1973, Dr. Matthew would have yet another run in with law enforcement after being charged with 121 counts of grand larceny and conspiracy, which accused him of taking $200,000 of Medicaid funds from the Interfaith Hospital and diverting it towards several of his two projects: the Watts bus line and a drug-addiction facility in Harlem, known then as Freedom Village. Dr. Matthew acknowledged that money had been spent towards both projects, but stated it provided job opportunities for people who were treated with drug and alcohol addictions at Interfaith Hospital. These charges were announced by Queens District Attorney Thomas J. Mackell. In response to his arrest, Dr. Matthew called it a “political thing to use a popular Black man to whitewash their own problems.” After a three-week trial in October and November of 1973, Dr. Matthew was sentenced to three years in prison: “The truth will come out in the appeal,” the surgeon said. Asked how he felt about going to jail, he said, “If I have to go to prison to establish justice and equality of opportunity for Black America I’ll go.”
On March 3, 1975, an appeals court in Brooklyn reversed the 1973 conviction of Dr. Matthew: “The five-member court unanimously dismissed all 71 larceny counts in the original indictment, threw out a three-year prison sentence pending against Dr. Matthew and suggested that the case against him had been so flimsy that Justice Thomas S. Agresta, who presided, should have dropped it halfway through the trial.” Following the reversal, The Appeals Court stated “there is not one fragment of testimonial or documentary evidence to suggest that the defendant acted with larcenous intent.”
Dr. Thomas Matthew viewed his ventures as preventive medicine: ““I really think that every thing that I do is part of my practice.”