Betty Miles Roberts was the first African American woman in the local area to work as a certified EMT, and she was instrumental in helping establish a county-run ambulance service in McDuffie. Roberts retired from EMS in 2012 at the age of 70. She recounted her story to the McDuffie Progress hoping young people understand that their grandparents and great-grandparents faced great difficulties fighting racial and gender inequality.
Roberts came of age in the 1950s, when segregation was still deeply entrenched in the American South.
“Growing up I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “My dad died in 1954 and my mother was a widow with five children. She had no money to send me to college. I didn’t get to be a doctor but I got to work with them side-by-side.”
Roberts began working in the laundry at Fort Gordon in 1964, during the height of the Vietnam Conflict.
After 3 to 4 months she was transferred to the post hospital to work. Roberts then went through a 90-day Army training program to work as a medical technician.
“That’s how I got to like working in emergency medicine,” she said.
Roberts said the Army post and the training they provided her “was a blessing.” She said the longer she worked in healthcare the more she felt it was a calling from God.
When Roberts was laid off from the hospital at Fort Gordon she went to work at the hospital in Sparta, Ga. She would assist nurses on the ward, and sometimes was assigned to the emergency room.
In 1972, she began her training to earn her EMT license at Macon Medical Center. Hancock County had a county-run ambulance service, she said. Many rural communities in the region, like McDuffie, relied on privately run ambulances years ago.
Roberts attended night classes three days a week, driving 2 and a half hours each way to earn her certification.
“But I was determined,” she said. “It [the course] was only taught by the doctors and the nurses at that time. I had to do my clinicals there (Macon Medical Center.) I had to ride in the ambulance.”
Roberts says she was the first African American woman to serve as a licensed EMT in Hancock County.
“My greatest prejudice came from my classmates,” Roberts remembered. “They were all male, except for me.”
They were also mostly white, except for four black men, she said. Roberts endured racial slurs and gestures; like several white classmates brandishing bananas when they entered the classroom.
Undeterred, Roberts studied hard for her exams. On the night her class took finals, some of the classmates who had harassed her didn’t pass the exam. She held up her passing test score and said aloud, “Who has the last laugh now?” “And from there I never looked back,” Roberts said.
A year and a half later, a friend heard about an opening for a licensed EMT in Warren County and encouraged her to apply so she wouldn’t have so far to drive to work. Roberts applied and was hired. She served that county from 1974-1975.
“It was pretty nice working in Warren County,” Roberts said. “I delivered a baby on the courthouse square right in the middle of town.”
Roberts said residents, who were generally not used to seeing a woman of color in emergency medicine, gradually became more at ease with her. However, it bothered her that McDuffie County didn’t have its own county-run ambulance service back then.
Roberts explained that Warren County’s ambulance service also covered McDuffie County and would transport patients from the McDuffie hospital to Augusta hospitals.
Roberts said she was approached by a relative of a candidate running for office in McDuffie, asking her to persuade friends and neighbors to register to vote. She did, even driving people without transportation to the courthouse to register.
Roberts also spoke to the candidate about establishing a county ambulance service in McDuffie County. She said a family tragedy convinced her of the need for one.
According to Roberts, years ago private ambulance services often refused to pick up African American patients “no matter how rich or poor they were.” She said she once witnessed a relative get killed on Augusta Highway and claimed when a private ambulance showed up the emergency medical personnel walked up to the injured man lying in the road, called him the “n” word and refused to transport him. Remembering this dreadful incident spurred her to take action.
So she helped draw up a petition and went door-to-door speaking about the need for a county-run ambulance. She said “Big” John Crawford, who owned a funeral home, and his daughter, Brenda Crawford, also worked toward acquiring a county-run ambulance service in McDuffie County.
“I didn’t give up. I knew there had to be a change,” Roberts said. “Not only for my family but for other families in the Thomson-McDuffie area.”
The candidate Roberts had supported was elected, and funding for an ambulance service was acquired. She was hired as an EMT for McDuffie County, citing the exact time and date: 9 a.m. Sept. 26, 1976.
“There is opportunity in McDuffie,” Roberts advised. “But you have to apply yourself. Never let anyone stand in your way and say you can’t, when you know you can. It’s left up to you.”