John Wesley Anderson, African-American physician, businessman, and philanthropist, was born into slavery in Lexington, Missouri, on September 1, 1861. His father was a white Englishman; his mother a Missouri slave. After his mother died by the time he was three, Anderson was raised by his grandmother. By 1869 Anderson had moved to Wyandotte, Kansas, to live with his uncle and namesake—John Wesley Anderson. Living with his uncle in Wyandotte proved to be a crucible for young Anderson. His uncle was very civic-minded and was a member of both the city council as well as the board of education. The elder Anderson proved an excellent role model for his nephew in reinforcing a love of work, of education, and a sense of duty to the community.
Anderson enrolled in school as soon as he arrived in Wyandotte City. While studying in school, young John also began working at age eleven. His first job (for a gardener) earned him twenty-five cents per day; he worked his way up to seventy-five cents a day at a local nursery. By the age of fourteen Anderson was cleaning railroad sleeping cars and, at the pay of thirty-five dollars a month, was economically self-supporting. He continued to excel at school and graduated in 1877 when he was sixteen years old. After graduation from high school, Anderson attended the University of Kansas and continued to support himself by cleaning Pullman cars.
After graduation from the university in 1880, Anderson returned to Wyandotte City where, following his love of education, he became a teacher. For his labor, he was paid forty dollars a month. Anderson so excelled at his job that within two years he was offered the position of principal at Wyandotte’s colored school and earned a salary of sixty dollars a month. His daily interaction with the student body made him acutely aware of their health needs. At this same time, he was serving a two-year apprenticeship with several doctors in Wyandotte. Inspired to action, Anderson left Wyandotte City in 1883 and enrolled in Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
Anderson took classes in medicine and completed his medical coursework in two years. Throughout his study, he supported himself economically by lecturing in anatomy and later chemistry at the college. He also began to invest some of his money in real estate so successfully that he paid for his tuition. After receiving his medical degree in 1885, Anderson began his study of dentistry. He also made his first trip to Texas when he traveled to a meeting held in Galveston in 1886. Anderson and thirteen other medical professionals formed the Lone Star State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association. One of the founding members included friend and fellow Meharry student, Monroe Alpheus Majors. This society was one of the earliest organizations of African-American medical professionals in the United States.
Anderson returned to Meharry to complete work on his D.D.S. In addition to his dental studies, he also took courses from the University of Michigan (1886) and Chicago University (1889), where he received his D.N.T. (Doctor of Natural Therapeutics) degree. By 1888 Anderson had earned his D.D.S. Under the influence and advice received from both his uncle and colleague Monroe Majors, Anderson moved to Dallas.
On July 13, 1888, Anderson began his medical practice in Dallas. He was the third Black doctor to practice in the city following fellow Meharry graduates Benjamin Bluitt and Monroe Majors. In his early practice he traveled extensively on house calls, and his patients included both the “elite” and poor. Race also took no preference as his clientele included African-American, Hispanic, and white patients. Economically and socially, the initial years were very tough for Anderson. According to the Dallas County tax rolls, his total value in 1888 consisted of a horse assessed at forty dollars.
Anderson remained optimistic about Dallas, however. In 1892 at the first graduating class of Dallas’s Black high school, he encouraged the young minds in attendance: “There are doors that have never been unlocked—rooms that have never been entered and vaults that a single ray of light has not yet penetrated.” Anderson continued his drive to excel professionally. When the opportunity arose to take a class in the new science of phrenology in New York City, he enrolled. Not only did he graduate as valedictorian, but he was also the only Black member elected to the American Institute of Phrenology.
By 1904 Anderson married Louise, a Huntsville, Alabama, native. With his wife, he built a residence at 1718 Jackson that became famous in his lifetime. The walls were draped with oil paintings of Texas landscapes, and the house was filled with curios from the travels that Anderson enjoyed with Louise and, after her passing, his second wife, Pearl.
To build his finances, Anderson sold real estate in Dallas, and his holdings gradually increased. In 1894 he had a total worth of $1,100. By 1895 his ownership of a building valued at $1,600, one carriage, and two horses set his total value at $1,920. In 1913 he acquired land just outside the city limits for a housing project named Lincoln Manor. When the development was ready in 1919, the lots sold rapidly—within two weeks some two-thirds (approximately 600 of 900) were claimed to have already been sold. Two reasons existed for this rapid sale. First, as testified by Dallas’s first Black housing survey performed in 1924–26, Dallas’s African-American families were in need of higher-quality housing. The second reason was simply stated by resident, Alvernon Tripp, who regarded the housing project as “kind of an opportunity for Blacks to own land.”
Anderson also had an astounding philanthropic career and believed that “the greater the need of those who receive, the greater the reward of those who give.” He donated $12,000 to his alma mater, Meharry Medical College. This enabled the replacement of a dilapidated barn that had housed medical classes with a new brick building, Anderson Anatomical Hall, dedicated in October 1917. He was the first Black man to donate such a large gift to the college. In 1922 Anderson became a trustee of Meharry Medical College. That same year he oversaw the opening of a tubercular ward at Woodlawn Hospital.
In 1926 he spoke about Black health at a lunch meeting of the National Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association (formerly the Lone Star State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association). In 1927 in support of the Negro Brotherhood movement, Anderson had the construction of his new building performed solely by Black craftsmen, regardless of the increased cost.
After the death of his first wife in 1926, Anderson married Pearl Carina Bowden on October 10, 1929. Pearl Anderson was a native of Louisiana and more than thirty-five years his junior who appreciated philanthropy because she had benefited from it at an early age. Her community would not have had a school had it not been for a gift from the Rosenwald Foundation.
Perhaps some of Anderson’s best-known philanthropic activities involved his longtime support for the YMCA. In 1931 he purchased a sixteen-acre tract on Forest Lane to build a summer home, Casita del Campo, that became a campsite for the YMCA. He deeply believed that the youth were the future, and he worked diligently as a YMCA committee member to find a solution for gaining land for a summer park for the boys. In 1935 he was made the honorary general chairman of the Moorland branch YMCA campaign drive. Anderson donated cash to pay for 253 memberships which enabled a record-setting 972 new memberships to the YMCA. In the wake of the membership campaign he held a barbecue for 200 of his “adopted” boys to celebrate Dallas’s first scouting pow-wow for seventh graders. In 1936 he worked ceaselessly on property that had been donated to the YMCA for the purpose of a summer camp, and during a three-day camp session, he worked and talked with the young participants and counseled them regarding problem-solving and maximizing their potential—a message that he also took to area schools. In 1939 the donation of his land, in combination with a “substantial contribution” from M. W. Dogan, the president of Wiley College, had ensured that Camp Anderson would meet the needs of the “large enrollment of boys” who signed up. By 1938 Anderson had given more than $18,000 to the Moorland branch YMCA. Additionally, he also personally awarded individual scholarships to needy students.
Throughout the rest of his life, Anderson remained active in a number of civic and professional organizations. In 1935 he won the largest amount of votes during the first week of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce (now Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce) poll for Dallas’s most useful citizen. He also took part in Dallas’s Community Chest Drive. By 1940 he was elected fourth vice-president of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce and in 1941 headed a donation drive for Meharry Medical College. In March 1943 Anderson was named among seventeen African-American members of a thirty-three-member Dallas Bi-Racial Committee created by Dallas mayor Woodall Rogers to “promote better relations between white and Negro citizens of Dallas.”
By the fifty-year anniversary of his practice in Dallas in July 1938, Anderson was said to have treated more than 70,000 patients over his long career. To mark this momentous occasion, a book The Life of John Wesley Anderson in Verse, was written for Anderson by J. Mason Brewer.
On May 30, 1947, John Wesley Anderson died in his home at 1718 Jackson Street. He was survived by a daughter, a foster son, and his wife Pearl, who continued his legacy for generosity. He was buried in Kansas City, Kansas. Black historian, C. G. Woodson described him as “an exceptional man measured by any yardstick.” Serving as a legacy for his dedication of giving, the seventy-two-acre Moorland Branch Y. Camp, located one mile south of Lancaster, was named in his honor.