Since 1981, Dr. Charles Champion has been a champion for the health and wellbeing of Memphis, providing quality medical care through modern pharmacology and herbal medicine to patients at Champion’s Pharmacy & Herb Store in Whitehaven.
On first inspection, Champion’s looks like an old-fashioned drug store with a wooden medicine wagon sitting in the parking lot advertising “Dr. Champion’s Museum of Old Tyme, Hard to Find Tonics.” The pharmacy’s interior display cases feature antique herbal supplements and compounds in dark bottles. Herbal soaps, tinctures, creams, powders and pills line the shelves. Yet despite the vintage-looking surroundings, the cliental and needs of customers within the pharmacy are very modern.
Dr. Champion is the first African-American doctor of pharmacy to be hired by a hospital in Memphis and the first Africa American pharmacist to be hired by a chain drug store in Memphis. He carries that legacy and a career that spans several decades to his family-run shop.
Dr. Charles Champion in his pharmacy office. (Rachel Warren)
Everywhere Dr. Champion goes, a wave of loyal patrons and patients follow. Located today at 2369 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Champion’s Pharmacy, co-owned by Dr. Champion and his wife of 60 years Carolyn Bailey Champion, moved the pharmacy from South Memphis to Whitehaven in 1991. The pharmacy serves approximately 15,000 customers a year, most from within Memphis but claims others from outside the region and even some international customers.
While it might take Dr. Champion a little bit longer to get around these days, his mind and spirit do not reflect his 87 years. Although most of the daily operations have been taken over by Dr. Champion’s daughters, pharmacists Dr. Charita Champion-Brookins and Dr. Carol L. Champion, Dr. Charles Champion still visits the pharmacy every day to counsel patients, monitor operations and talk with patrons.
He is a bundle of energy, shouting hello to everyone and asking about your mama. Most patients have been seeing him since childhood and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Champion’s does not fill third-party prescriptions. It instead offers herbal compounds, medical counseling and natural remedies.
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Through this system, Dr. Champion is able to offer quality medical help to patients who may not have access to sustainable or consistent health insurance. Many residents in Whitehaven live without health insurance, Dr. Champion said.
Dr. Champion got his start in herbal compounds after residents of the historically African-American community of Boxtown in South Memphis began frequenting his shop, asking for specific herbal remedies such as goldenseal, white pine bark and cherry bark. He began to consider the science of pharmacognosy, the study of medical drugs derived from natural sources.
“I went back and got my pharmacognosy books and began to read up on some of the things that I had learned in pharmacy school thirty years earlier. All of it together sparked an interest and gave me a boast in herbal medicine,” Dr. Champion said.
The pharmacy creates onsite signature herbal compounds prescribed for a variety of ailments. Customers can also shop Champion’s products online. Popular online remedies include Champion’s Cleansing Tea, and Emu arthritis gel, as well as ringworm, psoriasis and eczema kits.
The interior of Champion's Pharmacy & Herb Store in Whitehaven. (Rachel Warren)
After receiving a pharmacy degree from Xavier University in New Orleans in 1955, he spent two years in Germany as a pharmacist for the United States Army. He returned to the states and went to work at John Gaston Hospital, now Regional One Health, for 12 years before opening his own pharmacy. He is internationally known as a master herbal compounder. He has won numerous awards, including the Bowl of Hygeia for Outstanding Community Service as a Pharmacist, the Dr. Henry L. Starks Distinguished Service Award and the Outstanding Service Award presented by the National Pharmaceutical Association.
“I entered a field where I had no mentors or support because when I came along you either became a preacher or a teacher. There were no mentors for African-American doctors or pharmacists,” said Dr. Champion of his experience as an African-American pharmacist during the deep segregation of the American South, Jim Crow era regulations and the American Civil Rights Movement.
Despite never having his own mentor, Dr. Champion inspires others in his community.
“He is the reason I got into consulting people about natural living and healthy eating,” said Brother Franco Taylor, owner and CEO of Right Stuff Health Systems.
Champion's Pharmacy & Herb Store is located at 2368 Elvis Presley Boulevard. (Rachel Warren)Although he supports the use of herbal medicine, Dr. Champion only advocates it if it is safe for the patient, taking into consideration all the medicines a patient is currently taking. He never replaces a doctor’s recommendations. Dr. Champion also spends much of his time with the patient talking about fresh foods and exercise. Getting people eating better and moving more is one of Dr. Champion’s biggest missions.
Sugar consumption and its risks, he said, is something he is constantly speaking to patients about and decreasing sugar is a common recommendation. He said residents of South Memphis and Whitehaven are especially at risk for too consuming too much sugar because both areas are essentially food deserts. For many residents, accessing fresh food is challenging. Many of his patients also live with diabetes.
Dr. Carol L. Champion reported the pharmacy was awarded a $20,000 Inner City Economic loan from Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine. Through the award, Champion’s has been able to upgrade the appearance and efficiency of the pharmacy.
“The EDGE funding has helped us attract additional customers, and it generated numerous accolades and commendations from other businesses, neighbors and customers,” Dr. Carol added.
As for the future, Dr. Carol L. Champion said the Champion’s team hopes to improve the business’ online presence through an upgraded website, create a mobile outreach that will serve West Tennessee, Eastern Arkansas and Northern Mississippi. Increasing sales through Champion’s online shop is also a priority.
As for Dr. Champion, who has devoted 63 years to the practice of pharmacology, he is still looking to the future and staying ahead of the game.
He said, “From a business standpoint, I have always been a couple steps ahead of everybody else. I keep my eye on big companies and see what they are doing each year.”