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Who is Hubert A. Eaton?

Ben Steelman
Hubert Eaton

Tennis great Althea Gibson and her mentor, Dr. Hubert Eaton Sr., at Landfall. (StarNews file photo from 1985)

A longtime Wilmington physician, Hubert A. Eaton (1916-1991) was the point man for most of the civil rights battles in New Hanover County for more than three decades.

With his daughter, Carolyn, Eaton was the lead plaintiff in a 1964 federal lawsuit that led, in 1971, to the complete desegregation of New Hanover County schools. Eaton also joined other black doctors in suing for equal staff privileges at the former James Walker Memorial Hospital, and he led efforts to desegregate Wilmington College (forerunner of the University of North Carolina Wilmington), the Wilmington YMCA, the Municipal Golf Course and the county library system.

A nationally ranked amateur in the old American Tennis Association, Eaton also served as guardian and mentor to Althea Gibson, while the future tennis star was attending Williston High School. Gibson would go on to win the both the women’s Wimbledon title and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.

Born Dec. 3, 1916, in Fayetteville, the son of a doctor, Hubert Arthur Eaton graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in 1937. At the time, African-Americans were not admitted to any of North Carolina’s medical schools so, with some state assistance, Eaton studied medicine at the University of Michigan, earning his M.D. in 1942.

Eaton married Celeste Burnett, the daughter of Dr. Foster F. Burnett of Wilmington, and after completing his internship in Winston-Salem, he entered partnership with his father-in-law in 1943.

With a practice based overwhelmingly on African-American patients, Eaton was largely immune from possible reprisals from the white community (although he later had to fight a murder charge in a patient’s death). This gave him freedom to pursue legal action. In his autobiography, “Every Man Should Try,” published in 1984, Eaton wrote that he became a civil rights activist when he was called to testify at a trial — and realized that the county courts maintained separate Bibles to swear in black and white witnesses.

In 1951, Eaton and Dr. Daniel C. Roane sued the county school system under the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Using side-by-side photographs and statistics, the doctors argued successfully that black-only schools in New Hanover were dramatically inferior to those of whites. The suit forced the county into a massive building program to improve school facilities.

Eaton ran for a seat on the New Hanover County Board of Education in 1952, 1954 and 1956, the first African-American to seek public office in New Hanover County since the 1890s. He lost all three races, but paved the way for other black political leaders in the 1970s. Later Eaton would serve on the board of trustees of Cape Fear Technical Institute (later Cape Fear Community College) 1963-1973, and on the trustees of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, 1977-1985, becoming chairman of the board in 1981.

In 1932, at the age of 15, Eaton won the N.C. Inter-Scholastic Tennis Tournament in Winston-Salem. In 1933, he was the junior champion of the American Tennis Association, the organization to which most African-American tennis players belonged before the desegregation of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. Eaton won the singles championship for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association while an undergraduate. Later, he and George Stewart were the ATA’s doubles champions in 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1956. Eaton was president of the American Tennis Association, 1960-1970.

Eaton was chief of staff for Community Hospital, the county’s black hospital under segregation, 1948-1949. He was president of the Old North State Medical Society, the organization of the state’s black physicians, 1964-1965.

Eaton died in Wilmington on Sept. 4, 1991. In 1996, Eaton Elementary School, 6701 Gordon Road, Wilmington [Map this], was named in his memory. His son, Hubert A. Eaton Jr., practiced medicine in Wilmington for a number of years.

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2 Responses to “ Who is Hubert A. Eaton?”

  1. On February 3, 2010 at 10:39 am alexis jones wrote:

    The history of Dr. Eaton’s contributions to civility in New Hanover County should be required reading in the school system. He was all of what this article reviews — in addition, he was a gentleman, gathering respect from anyone who met him.

  2. On February 6, 2010 at 7:47 am Charles Ford wrote:

    Dr. Eaton delivered my at birth, Oct 15th 1954

    C Ford

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