Black History Month Reflections: James Nichols

Tony Strong

Tony Strong is a community health worker for Heartland Alliance Health, working primarily with participants recovering from substance use disorders. For Black History Month, Tony reflects on his own past – remembering his own story of redemption and the leaders from his hometown that continue to inspire him today. Tony chose to speak about his childhood doctor, James Nichols.

Why did you choose to reflect on this individual?

I chose to speak about someone not so well known in other parts of the world: a local Evanston doctor from my childhood home, Dr. James Nichols. I grew up in Evanston – I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess it was the “bad” part of Evanston. This guy lived right down the street from me. He was a friend of my father’s, and the whole neighborhood really admired him. He did a lot for the community. He would practice out of his home, and wouldn’t charge for individuals who couldn’t pay. He would coach football, and was a leader in our local basketball league. Back then, Evanston was very close knit in our neighborhood. We were really an integrated city, because we all only had one highschool.

I didn’t know any other black doctors. In our neighborhood, our idea of a successful job was working for a city. Riding a garbage truck, working for the parks – those were good jobs. Being a doctor sort of was at the height of all of that. He was revered in our neighborhood. Knowing that he was successful I what he did, and that he gave back so much – it meant a lot. More importantly, the man carried himself with a confidence and a strength. He never seemed worried, he never seemed out of sorts. He showed me – and a lot of us – stability.

How does this person inspire the work you do today?

Dr. Nichols was a man of service, and a black leader and healthcare provider – which we didn’t see much of back then. He was so giving of himself and his time. He was there for the community. After years of living in a lifestyle that wasn’t helping me, back when I was using, I reached a point where I was on the edge of snapping. I’ve been sober since 2013, and ever since I’ve been doing service work. This is life changing for me. You have to give all that you have in order to keep what you have. You have to be helping somebody to continue to thrive. It’s a way to give back to my higher power, to stay humble, and stay grateful. It’s a privilege for me to be of service. I cherish this opportunity.

What will it take to achieve the world this individual fought for?

The neighborhoods and communities I lived in as a child have been lost. There was diversity, there was opportunity, there was sacrifice and investment. We need to understand that those living around us are OF us. It’s about compassion, and not throwing people away. Today, in society, in our justice system, in the drug epidemics facing us – we forget to look at the individual, and only look at the crime. That has left a void in our communities. The crack epidemic sent so many fathers away forever, and left generations to raise themselves. Society is one whole piece of fabric – and we need to understand that. There is strength in all of us to serve, to volunteer, to trust others.