Mathew Marmillion

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Mathew Marmillion


Mathew J. Marmillion was born April 17, 1871 in New Orleans, Louisiana to Adam and Julia Marmillion. Mathew's father, born about 1840, was listed as a carpenter who could read and write on the 1870 United States Census, so we can speculate that Adam may have been a "mulatto” freeman in antebellum Louisiana. Adam served in the Civil War for the Union in the 80th Regiment US Colored Infantry, organized April 4, 1864, as 8th Corps de Afrique Infantry and stationed at Port Hudson, Louisiana.

Mathew may have initially followed in his father's footsteps; he was listed as a carpenter in the New Orleans city directory in 1900, possibly a trade he engaged in while completing his studies. He graduated from New Orleans University and received his medical training at Flint-Goodridge Medical School. In 1906, Mathew moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Within a decade, Mathew owned and operated the Marmillion Sanatorium for Women until he moved to Los Angeles in 1923. There is no record why Mathew decided to migrate to Los Angeles, but he continued to pursue a seemingly lucrative medical career in the segregated Central Avenue district. By 1926, Mathew established his medical practice in the Marmillion Building, an edifice he had constructed using primarily African American labor costing over $30,000. A couple years later in 1928, the iconic Hotel Somerville (later renamed the Dunbar Hotel) would open just a few blocks south of the Marmillion Building on Central Avenue. During his tenure in Los Angeles he was the state medical director, and he had numerous civic and business organizational ties.

The course of Mathew's successful professional life was thrown into chaos when his eighteen year old patient, Margaret Scott, suddenly died in Mathew's care. Mathew testified that Margaret came to him February 9, 1933 seeking help for "repeated attacks of throat trouble.” He scheduled her for a tonsillectomy for February 13. On the 11th Margaret came in with her mother and boyfriend demanding immediate performance of the tonsillectomy. Margaret died shortly after being administered anesthesia. Yet when Margaret's body was transported to the "undertaker,” an autopsy showed that Margaret died from internal hemorrhaging and shock from an attempted abortion. The prosecution alleged that Mathew agreed to perform the abortion and used the tonsillectomy to cover up the actual cause of death. Mathew was consequently convicted of second degree murder by an all-white jury. Marmillion hired new counsel that supposedly discovered new evidence that implicated Margaret's boyfriend, Archie Harrison who was a medical student at Loma Linda. His appeal of the verdict was denied in December, and he entered San Quentin just before Christmas to serve a sentence of five years to life.

In the following year, Marmillion requested a pardon from the governor, which was never granted, but a minor movement coalesced around Marmillion protesting for his freedom as a matter of innocence for some or simply leniency for others. The Sentinel appeared to have spearheaded the campaign. In September 1934 the paper ran the massive front page headline "FREE DR. MARMILLION!” The paper proclaimed to be speaking for "the many thousands of people in the state of California” as a spokesman for public opinion when it wrote, "The SENTINEL has, over a period of months, been showered with letters and wires urging that it act as spokesman for the many thousands of persons interested in the Marmillion case. Now the SENTINEL IS acting as spokesman and it urges that Governor Merriam free Marmillion. FREE MARMILLION!” (Sentinel, Sept 20 1934) The Chicago Defender exclaimed that "state-wide interest has been stirred in the appeal to the governor for the release of the one-time prominent medical man.” (Defender, Oct 27 1934) During the following two years letters poured in requesting the release for Dr. Marmillion. The President of the NAACP, Thomas L. Griffith, wrote, "His many friends in the business , professional and religious circles can bear witness to his worth to the community and many join with me when I say for all that he has done in helping build up the community he is certainly at this time entitled to another chance at freedom.” Business men, religious leaders, and former elected officials all wrote letters requesting Dr. Marmillion's release. The widespread concern may have had the intended effect. Marmillion was granted parole in late 1936 and released in March of 1937.[ADD parole language] While serving just over three years, Marmillion was appointed as an assistant in the religious department of the prison library where he lectured a group of six hundred inmates in the absence of the minister.

What became of Marmillion's medical practice and social standing after release is unclear. The business office he built around 1926 became the interest of the American Advancement League, a group of black business professionals that encouraged black employment and recreation. In 1936 the group held a series of benefits to raise money to establish a "community owned” center in Marmillion's former establishment. The benefit attracted donors from individual, business, and artists. Dr. Marmillion faded from public record until his death on March 23, 1950 in Los Angeles. He was survived by his wife Alida Wilson, two sons, Mathew and Samuel, and a daughter, Olida and one grandson, Nathaniel.


Marques A. Vestal

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