Saginaw's First African American Physician

“Dr. Ross’s same openness and independence may explain his decision to serve as mentor, friend and eventually colleague to Charles W. Ellis, Jr., the Saginaw Valley’s first African American physician. Dr. Ross was instrumental in helping Ellis gain admission to the Detroit College of Medicine and when Dr. Ellis graduated in 1889 he worked as an associate in Dr. Ross’s East Saginaw Office.”

John Vincent Jezierski, Enterprising Images: The Goodridge Brothers, African American Photographers, 1847-1922.

Dr. Charles W. Ellis, Jr. was born in Adrian is 1862. When quite young, he and his family moved to Saginaw where his father was employed as the head waiter at the Taylor House. By 1870, Charles W. Ellis senior had his own restaurant on Washington Avenue, now Michigan Avenue, in Saginaw City.

According to the census, at age 15, he worked in a dry goods store while attending school. By 1885, he was studying with Dr. Benjamin Ross, a prominent East Saginaw physician and an early doctor at St. Mary’s Hospital. Ellis attended Olivet College and continued his studies at the Detroit College of Medicine from which he graduated with honors in 1889. The following years he went to Paris and London to study. He married Amy Watson of Detroit, who he met while in Medical School. When Dr. Ross passed away in 1896, Ellis inherited both Ross’s practice and home on South Jefferson Avenue.

Photograph of Dr. Ellis' home

Although no photograph of Dr. Ellis has been located, an image of the exterior of his South Jefferson Avenue home was included in the Goodridge Brothers’ Art Souvenir of Saginaw, Michigan, USA.

Ellis numerous accomplishments included: a large private practice, serving a city health officer, staff at St. Mary’s Hospital, physician at St. Vincent’s Orphans’ Home and numerous other public positions.

After his death in 1908, the Saginaw County Medical Society held a special meeting in his honor at the Bancroft Hotel. He was named to the Saginaw County Hall of Fame in 2018.


Information for this piece is from: John Vincent Jezierski, Ph. D., Enterprising Images: The Goodridge Brothers, African American Photographers, 1847-1922.

Roosevelt Samuel Ruffin, Ph.D., Black Presence in Saginaw, Mich.: 1855-1900.

Leo Romo, retired teacher and history enthusiast.

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