By Ann Cipperly
In the early 1900s a horse and buggy slowly made its way along dusty, dirt roads throughout Opelika and the countryside as Dr. John Darden began a long day of calling on patients. His bride, Maude Jean, who rode along to keep the young doctor company, sat in the buggy and waited until he provided medical care to his patients.
John Wesley Darden had decided at 13 years of age that he wanted to become a medical doctor when he was unable to find a physician for his unconscious younger sister. His sister lived, fueling a young John to become a doctor.
Born in 1876 in Wilson, N.C., John was the eldest of 13 children. His father was the first African American undertaker in the state of North Carolina and also owned a general store that sold fresh produce and his homemade wine. The community held him in such high esteem that the first African American high school was named in his honor, the Charles H. Darden High School.
When John was 13 years old, his parents, who were determined to give all their chil- dren an education, sent him to high school in Salisbury, N.C. John worked his way through Livingstone College (now Shaw University) and a medical internship in Long Island, N.Y.
Since his hometown already had African American medical service, the young doctor began searching for a place where his services were needed. A college friend, who was a phy- sician in Tuskegee, recommended the small town of Opelika. John moved to Opelika in 1903 and became the first African American physician in a 30-mile radius and began work- ing 18-hour days.
For a short time he occupied a house on South Third Street, which was also used as an office. He purchased a building on Jefferson Street (later named Avenue A in 1912) where he opened a clinic and drugstore. One of his brothers, J.B., who had recently received a degree in pharmacy, became his partner at the drugstore.
After moving his practice, he converted the house on Third Street as an infirmary for African Americans and performed surgeries there.
John met Maude Jean Logan when his church choir was invited to perform at her church in Montgomery. John with his beauti- ful baritone voice was the soloist, and Maude Jean, who taught school, was the pianist.
John and Maude Jean married in 1905. Maude would make calls with her husband in his horse and buggy.
The young doctor had purchased 9.68 acres of land on Auburn Street in 1904. He hired two African American contractors who attended their church to build the two-story house in 1906 for their home.
The drugstore not only dispensed prescrip- tions, but also sold homemade ice cream. On Sunday afternoons, many strolled down to John’s drugstore for his homemade ice cream. Vanilla and chocolate were staples, with new flavors frequently offered, including a spicy ice cream fragrant with cinnamon and nut- meg, along with fig and strawberry flavors.
After John’s mother died, his youngest brother, 9-year-old Walter “Bud,” came to Opelika to live with John and Maude. Bud grew up in Opelika and worked at the soda fountain.
Maude’s sister Fannie married Dr. John Clark under an arbor in their garden. Clark opened his dental office upstairs at the Darden clinic.
John also served as a conscription doctor and treated inmates at Lee County Jail. While his main practice was in Opelika, he also pro- vided medical assistance to rural areas and Auburn. At times he consulted with Dr. Jim Bruce on some cases.
Maude cultivated a flower garden, gave piano lessons and taught Sunday school at the Thompson Chapel AME Zion Church. She became the director of Christian education, while John was on the board of trustees for many years.
She enjoyed entertaining and having guests in their home on Auburn Street. Guests would stop by for a cup of tea and cookies. She was civic minded and taught young girls lessons on etiquette and manners.
The Dardens were active in both the reli- gious and social life. Prominent visitors to their home included Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and A. G. Gaston.
As John became older, he began treating patients in his home. In 1944 he moved a large part of his practice to the house. Some changes were made on the house to accommodate patients. A section of the porch was enclosed to serve as a waiting room, and a room inside was converted into an examining area.
He practiced for two years at his house until his death Jan. 10, 1949.
When the new African American high school opened in Opelika in 1951, it was named in his honor. The school merged with Opelika High School in 1971.
Although the Dardens did not have chil- dren, Maude Jean said later in life that teach- ing Sunday school for 60 years had given her hundreds of children. She continued living in the house until her death in 1976.
The house was rented for a couple of years and then became vacant. In 1980, Darden heirs sold the house, which was later fore- closed. It stood vacant for many years. As the house deteriorated, it was scheduled for demolition. In 1999, the J.W. Darden High School Alumni Association was organized and formed the Darden Foundation in 2001. The Foundation purchased the property with donations from former Darden High School students.
After restoration, the house was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
The Darden home continues to be the site of healthcare today. The J.W. Darden Wellness Center, located in the former Darden home- stead, offers health screening and education every Wednesday from 9 a.m. until noon. A collaborative effort of the J.W. Darden Foundation, Inc., the EAMC Parish Nurse Program, and the Auburn University School of Nursing, the Center offers expert health infor- mation free of charge.
Many things have changed since John and Maude traveled the streets in a horse and buggy. Darden’s hospital and drugstore have been torn down and replaced with a parking lot.
However, the Dardens’ legacy and influence have continued with those who sat in Sunday school classes, were treated by a dedicated and caring doctor and passed on stories of a couple who gave their lives to improve the lives of others.
Sources: Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine by Norma Jean and Carole Darden, whose father was Bud, who moved from Opelika and became a physi- cian in Newark, N.J.; The Heritage of Lee County, Alabama, the J.W. Darden Foundation and Local Family’s Roots by Ann Cipperly, Opelika-Auburn News, March 11, 1979