A doctor, politician and noted international medical missionary, Dr. Aaron M. McMillan (1895-1980) was a pivotal force in North Omaha. After serving in the Nebraska Legislature from 1928 to 1929, he served as a hospital-founder and physician in Angola for 17 years. Then he came back to North Omaha, where he provided free healthcare for five years before going back into private practice.
Arriving in North Omaha
Aaron Manasses McMillan was the son of a Hatian Baptist minister who was formerly enslaved. Growing up in rural Arkansas, as a young man McMillan graduated from the Cotton Plant Academy in Arkansas in 1915. In his early 20s, McMillan served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Apparently, he was recruited from Cotton Plant and served in France.
After serving earned his bachelor’s degree at Bishop College in Dallas in 1919, McMillan completed his medical studies at Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1923.
He moved to North Omaha in 1922 when he was 27-years-old.
When he was at Bishop College, McMillan met his wife Willena. She also graduated from Bishop College, teaching at Houston College and Texas A&M College in Fort Worth. The McMillans had three children: Henry Robert “Bobby” (1925-1988), Helen, and Aaron, Jr.
McMillan decided to move to Omaha after visiting his father, who was the minister at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.
In 1927, McMillan was added to the ballot as a last minute candidate to challenge Dr. John A. Singleton, DDS for a seat in the Nebraska Legislature. The effort worked and he was elected to represent North Omaha’s Ninth District. McMillan immediately became a member of the Douglas County Republican Committee and delegate to state Republican convention.
In his 1980 obituary, it was noted that during his early years in Omaha, he provided the first professional office space for Omaha’s NAACP and was the first Omahan to buy a lifetime membership to the organization.
Becoming a Missionary Doctor
However, that same year he was elected, he was invited by the Black Congregational Church and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to serve as a medical missionary. Leaving his term early, in 1929 McMillan and his wife left for the School of Tropical Medicine in Lisbon, Portugal, for an 18-month program of post-graduate studies.
In 1931, they became the first American medical missionaries in Portuguese West Africa, later called Angola. The facility they served at was called the the Galangue Mission. Founded in 1923, Galangue was the first mission founded and staffed by African Americans in Angola.
“Then there was the medical missionary Dr. Aaron M. McMillan, whose care for the thousands of sick and afflicted helped not only to cure disease and to educate the people in sanitation and public health but also to drive away the traditional fears of evil spirits which burdened and barred the people from personal and social development.”— From I Stand Committed by Dr. Karl E. Downs, Stewart Missionary Foundation for Africa, Gammon Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia circa 1949
Dr. McMillan was credited with expanding the medical services of the institution greatly when he arrived. Apparently attracting European patients as well as Africans, his training program for nurses and physician’s assistants was remarkable for its time. Apparently, McMillan’s missionary work was supported by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a white-led organization, as a consequence of W.E.B. Du Bois’s earlier exposé of “American white Christianity.”
During their 17 years there, the McMillan’s secured donations from the United States to build a modern medical complex at the Galangue Mission called the Willis F. Pierce Memorial Hospital. When they left, the facility had 4-acres with 45 buildings, including a 2-story building, 130 beds, modern equipment, a chapel, and training facilities for staff. More than one report said Dr. McMillan had served more than 80,000 patients and performed over 3,000 surgeries.
Dr. McMillan came back to the U.S. more than once during his tenure abroad. In 1935 he spoke to the University of Nebraska at Omaha Pre-Med Club on “Tropical Medicine,” based on his experiences in Africa.
After his permanent return to the United States, Dr. McMillan made several contributions to African-oriented organizations related to his time in Angola. He donated his African art collection to a higher education institution, but I haven’t located where. Apparently his collection consisted of wood sculpture, musical instruments, etc., made by the Ovimbundu and Chokwe people. Dr. McMillan also donated his archival information to an organization called the Southern Association of Africanists. The information was related to the hospital in Angola as well as missionary doctors in southern Africa. He also apparently donated archival materials to the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, South Carolina.
Returning to Omaha
Aaron and Willena moved back to Omaha 1948, and over the next 20 years he served the community as a doctor again.
Within a short time, Dr. McMillan opened the People’s Hospital at North 20th and Grace Streets. Located in a converted apartment building on the southeast corner of North 20th and Grace Streets,
Dr. McMillan also volunteered with the Omaha NAACP and other organizations. Dr. McMillan became the first African American appointed to the Omaha Housing Authority board of directors in 1959, and was the chairman in 1964, serving until 1967. He also served on the City of Omaha Mayor’s Bi-Racial Committee in the 1960s.
Speaking to church audiences, conferences and more, Dr. McMillan spoke locally and nationally about his experiences, and was well-regarded by friends and colleagues. In February 1949, he was part of a conversation hosted by the DePorres Club called “The Negro in Medicine in Omaha.” He was the keynote speaker at the second annual National Negro History Association Conference in April of that same year.
After it was closed by the City of Omaha, Dr. McMillan had the hospital building demolished and replaced it with a new office at 2056 North 20th Street that he used for the rest of his career. Later he served on the staff at the Children’s Hospital and Methodist Hospital in Omaha.
In 1953, Dr. McMillan built a new home at 2854 Wirt Street, and that year he was crowned King Borealis at the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church Coronation Ball.
Leaving his office one night in 1967, he was shot by a thief while walking through the Near North Side. Leaving a bruise in his stomach, the bullet did not penetrate and he recuperated quickly.
Dr. McMillan’s wife Willena died in 1970. In 1971, McMillan’s health weakened and he was taken to Immanuel Hospital. Ruled a possible heart attack, shortly after that he moved from North Omaha to Los Angeles to live near his children.
Dr. Aaron Manasses McMillan died on June 1, 1980 in Inglewood, California.
Dr. McMillan’s office building at North 20th and Grace was demolished in the early 1990s. As of 2022, the home he built is still standing.
Remembering Dr. McMillan
In 1942, Linton Wells published an account of Dr. McMillan’s exploits, adventures and activities in Africa called “The Wheel Makes a Complete Turn.” It was published in the Urban League’s academic journal called Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, and is available online.
In 1977, Dr. McMillan signed a contract with Vantage Press to publish a book he wrote called “Majestic Heads.” It came out in 1978 to little fanfare, and today the book is extremely hard to find. Apparently the book tells the story of his time in Africa, including harrowing stories and more.
Today, there are no monuments or historical markers in Omaha to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. McMillan.
You Might Like…
- A History of the People’s Hospital in North Omaha
- A History of African American Politics in North Omaha
- A History of Community Leaders in North Omaha
- A History of African American Legislators from North Omaha
- “Aaron M. McMillan and Medical Missionary Work in Angola,” a photo album of Dr. McMillan’s service in Angola. For sale by McBlain Books.
- Aaron Manasses McMillan on Wikipedia
- “The Wheel Makes a Complete Turn” by Linton Wells for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life in 1942 on pgs 68-70, 91.