A family of leaders is remembered

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Plaque placed on home will honor deceased Rabb family

By Lisa King

Rabb family


WHAT: A ceremony to honor the Rabb family, which lived in Shelbyville in the 1950s. Dr. Maurice Rabb Sr. and his wife, Jewell, were active in the civil rights movement in Shelbyville and Louisville, and their son Dr. Maurice Rabb Jr. was on one of the leading ophthalmologists in the country.

WHEN: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday

WHRE: 413 Henry Clay Street, at the former home and office of Dr. Rabb Sr.

Long overdue recognition will come Tuesday for a prominent African-American family that called Shelbyville home in the 1950s.

At 1:30 p.m., state and local officials will gather at 413 Henry Clay Street for a short ceremony to place a plaque at the former home of the Rabb family.

The ordinary looking home, situated atop a small hill, still houses a barber shop that has been operated in the basement of the home for 55 years by Rev. Robert Marshall, a friend of the Rabbs.

“They were good people,” said Marshall, 74.

Dr. Maurice Rabb Sr. was a physician and civil rights activist in both Shelbyville and Louisville. His wife, Jewell, was a math teacher and civil rights activist, and was treasurer of the Louisville NAACP. The couple’s only child, Maurice Rabb Jr., was a college professor and an internationally renowned ophthalmologist, who engaged in groundbreaking work in corneal and retinal vascular diseases.

All three are deceased, the father died in 1983, and his wife and son both passed away in 2005; the son was 73.

Mike Miller, who purchased the house with his wife, Betsy, in 1997 and now rents it to a young family, said he didn’t know about the Rabbs, and only found out about them from Marshall when he visited him at the barbershop one day.

“He told me, he said, ‘I had my leg set in this house,’ and I said, ‘you had your leg set and cast in a barber shop?’ And he said, ‘it used to be a doctor's house and clinic, back many moons ago.’”

Rabb Sr. had run his medical clinic out of the house, which is estimated to be about 90 years old.

Miller said he thought it would be great to include information on the family in the Community Tapestry event held annually in February during Black History Month and so he began to gather information on them.


A remarkable family

Marshall, who was good friends with Rabb Jr., remembers the family well.

“He [Rabb Sr.] was the ethnic doctor of the community back in the forties and fifties, and this was his office,” he said, gesturing around his shop.

He recalled the first time he met Rabb Sr.

“I was about four or five years old and he took a nail out of my foot,” he remembered.

In those days, Henry Clay Street was the center of a bustling community, and he remembers Dr. Rabb standing out in front of the house waving to people.

“He would just go out front and stand and look around,” he said.  

Marshall said the last time he saw Rabb Jr., he came back from Chicago to visit, and remarked that the house looked the same as it had when he was growing up there. The house had partially burned in the fifties, Marshall said, which was reason the Rabbs had moved. He located his shop there after it was renovated.

Rabb Jr., who went to school at the Lincoln Center, graduated from the University of Louisville in 1958, a feat in itself, Miller said.

“Maurice Jr. was one of the very first African-Americans to attend the University of Louisville and it identifies him as being the one who broke the segregation barrier at the university’s school of medicine,” he said.

After his residency, Rabb started a private ophthalmology practice in Chicago, focusing on retinal disease. He became medical director of the Illinois Eye Bank and Research Laboratory, was chair of ophthalmology at Mercy Hospital, was medical director of Prevent Blindness America and founded the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center at the University of Illinois.

Rabb was recognized for his efforts to expand opportunities for doctors from underrepresented communities through the National Medical Association. Annually, the NMA awards the Rabb Venable Ophthalmology Award for Outstanding Researchto students and residents for the best research presentations.

Miller said that after he found out about all of Rabb’s achievements, he knew he wanted to do something to honor the memory of him and his family.

“This event is grown more than I ever anticipated,” he said. “I got the plague [made] and got the permission [to have to placed on the house].”

“So we're just going to have a small ceremony to have the plaque put either on the retaining wall or on the house,” he said. “As it turns out, our US senator, Rand Paul, is an ophthalmologist, and I thought it would be nice if he were available when we put the plague on the house. One thing turned into another, and he will be there next Tuesday and we will memorialize the Rabb family.”

Along with Paul, expected officials will also include Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger and Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty. Marshall will also be on hand, as well as local historian Sanda Jones.