In no particular order, Almena Free is an Anniston physician, a person of faith, an identical twin, a Hoosier (then) and an Alabamian (now), a hospital administrator and a dancer so accomplished that she’s downright famous for it.
Yet, strange as it seems, she can sound a bit unconfident.
“You just don’t really know who’s paying attention to what you do,” she said Thursday afternoon.
That’s humility, not hesitance.
But this is what you get from Almena Free, quiet confidence amid a global pandemic from a doctor who has practiced medicine here for nearly a quarter-century. Once chief of staff for the Regional Medical Center Health System, she now is its vice president of medical affairs, taking over earlier this month from Dr. David Zinn.
She’s astonished, even a bit flabbergasted, which is silly. There’s no reason for it.
“You go through the day, doing your job, doing the best you can, and to be asked to be in this position, I think it was remarkable,” she said.
What she didn’t say was this: that the system’s new vice president of medical affairs is a Black woman with a degree from a historically Black college, the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. That her new role has arrived in the fall of 2020 is just as noteworthy.
A month ago, Anniston elected only the fourth woman — and only the second Black woman — in its history to the City Council, Ciara Smith of Ward 3.
This month, Americans elected a woman as vice president for the first time in U.S. history, a sentence that omits so much. When sworn in with President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20, Sen. Kamala Harris also will become the nation’s first Black VP, its first Indian American VP and its first Asian American VP.
Like the 21-year-old Smith, Free is a Calhoun County example of the larger story that Harris’ election is telling. It’s a story of an increasingly diverse nation, in gender and race and religion and birthplace, whose leaders often don’t resemble those they serve.
Smith’s election resonates because of Anniston’s elected past — white and male, mainly — and a population that is now majority Black. Smith’s installation as the council’s vice-mayor can’t be oversold.
Free’s rise within RMC’s leadership differs in that it doesn’t involve city elections, but its meaning is nonetheless clear. Anniston has never had a Black mayor or a Black police chief, but one of its vital enterprises — its public hospital system — is embracing diversity at a time when its value is wholly undeniable.
“It’s something that's necessary because the country is so diverse,” said Free, a hospitalist at RMC. “Just as a woman in this country, we’ve had a hard way to go to at least fare (similarly) in a man’s world, and being a Black woman and having that fight, it’s an accomplishment.”
When you listen to Free unwrap her background — her Indiana upbringing in the 1960s; her parents’ insistence on education and colorblind fairness — you get a sense that this was preordained, or at least predictable.
Free’s father, an African-American, was a non-commissioned officer in the Army, so the family moved often. Her mother, who was biracial and fair-skinned, identified as a Black woman. “I never looked at her as a white woman,” Free said. And she taught her children to treat people graciously, whoever they were.
“My mother said that if you ever meet someone of a different culture or language, if you don’t understand them, it’s your problem,” Free said. “You have to pay attention, take your time and listen and learn.”
Compassion embedded into her life. She hated seeing suffering. “I loved taking care of sick things, whether it be animals or bugs or people,” Free said. In school she embraced science and math and majored in biology and chemistry before entering Morehouse. Medicine became her future, an unavoidable career path.
Plus, “I would have died if I had gone into business. I would have been eaten alive. I have an identical twin sister who’s an executive in business, and she’s a barracuda, so I know the difference. My personality fits in medicine.”
I asked if she thought her new role with the RMC system was a big deal. She wasn’t sure.
She paused, and thought again of her mother’s lessons, the ones from her 1960s childhood in Indiana.
“My mother always told me that in order to do even average, you have to be better than average as a Black person,” Free said. “And to be the best you have to be the very best and you have to continue to strive. You cannot take the time to be lazy.”
She had her answer.
“I wouldn't think it’s a big deal, but it is a big deal, and I should appreciate it that way …” she said. “Here in Anniston it is a big deal, and I’m going to go ahead and say, ‘Yes, thank you, Jesus.’”