KUMC's history of desegregation

February 10, 2011

By C.J. Janovy

Edward Vernon Williams in 1941
Edward Vernon Williams, MD, ca 1941

This month, the History and Philosophy of Medicine Department presents "The Summer of 1938: The Desegregation of the University of Kansas School of Medicine." Curated by archivist Nancy J. Hulston, the exhibit (which runs through March in the Clendening Library) commemorates the 70th anniversary of the graduation in 1941 of KU Medical Center's first African-American medical student, Edward V. Williams, MD.

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in zoology, completing the first two years of medical school and achieving the honor of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, in 1938 Williams was refused admission to the last two clinical years of KU's medical school in Kansas City, Kan., because he was black.

"The school advised Williams, as all previous Kansas medical students of African descent, to apply for completion of his training at Howard University, an all black medical school in Washington, D.C.," Hulston writes in "The Desegregation of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, 1938," published in the journal Kansas History (Summer 1996). "The reason given was that white patients would not want a black medical student to attend them."

That same year, Kansas Gov. Walter A. Huxman, having heard complaints by black students who had been denied admission to medical school, wrote to KU chancellor Ernest Hiram Lindley, saying, "Our schools must be and remain open to all classes of citizens." Lindley proceeded to survey major medical schools throughout the country. Twelve were already integrated, while 19 were still segregated.

Wahl proposed building separate facilities to accommodate black students, but the governor refused. "I hate intolerance," Huxman said, according to one newspaper account. "We are all of one blood and neither democracy nor the true American spirit is in the heart of any man who seeks to array class against class, race against race, or the people of one religious belief against the people of another."

In conjunction with the exhibit, Hulston has put together the following list of "Milestones in African-American History at the University of Kansas School of Medicine: The First 50 Years."

De Norval Unthank applies for admission to the KU School of Medicine and is accepted for the first year in Lawrence, but then denied admission to the clinical years in Rosedale because he is black. He completes his medical degree at Howard University in 1926. His uncle, Thomas Unthank, MD, was a founder and director of General Hospital #2 in Kansas City, Missouri.

Donald Ferguson applies and is accepted to the first two years of medical school at Lawrence, but is denied admission to the clinical years. Ferguson continues to push to gain admission and hires a lawyer.

Geraldine Mowbray applies to the School of Medicine and is denied admission because of her race. She completes her medical degree at Howard University, then goes to Columbia and receives her Master's Degree in Public Health. Mowbray would become the Director of the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York.

Edward V. Williams, through the intervention of Kansas Gov. Walter Huxman, is granted admission to the clinical years at the KU School of Medicine under the protest of some faculty and administrators.

Donald Ferguson gains admission to the clinical years.

Edward Williams becomes the first African American to graduate from the KU School of Medicine. Upon graduation in 1941, Williams traveled to Chicago and interned at Northwestern University under the famous black dermatologist T.K. Lawless, M.D. He then went into military service for four years, during which he spent time at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and at the VA Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1946, he set up a practice in Internal Medicine in Muskegon, Michigan, which turned into his life's work.

Donald Ferguson becomes the second African American to graduate from the KU School of Medicine. He would later enter a career of industrial medicine at Kansas City's Bendix-Honeywell plant.

Lewis Napier Bass, MD, graduates from the KU School of Medicine. He proceeds to become the first African American resident in Pediatrics at KUMC. He would go on to become Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and from 1967-1971 served as Clinical Director of the Children and Youth Project at KUMC. In 1971 he left KUMC to become Medical Director of the Model Cities Health Service Program in Kansas City, Missouri.

Christine Weems Northern becomes the first African-American woman to graduate from the KU School of Nursing (still under the auspices of the School of Medicine). After receiving her nursing degree, Northern practiced and taught at local hospitals for many years. She also worked as a nursing instructor at KUMC. Current Kansas City, Kan., Wyandotte County Unified Government Commissioner Butch Ellison asked Northern to be the health and education planner for the Model Cities Program in the 1960s. The city wanted to open a 100-bed nursing home in the Quindaro neighborhood. Three years later, Northern had the Bryant Butler Kitchen Nursing Home up and running.

Northern also was a division director for the Office for Civil Rights, Higher Education Division, where she supervised complaints under the Civil Rights Act. She was one of the founding members of the Douglass Community Health Center, now under the umbrella of the Swope Parkway Health Center. She served on the Wyandotte County Health Department board and the local Girl Scouts board. Christine Weems Northern died January 20, 2009.

Samuel U. Rodgers, MD, a 1942 graduate of Howard University Medical School, and founder, in 1968, of the Community Health Center that bears his name, joins the Obstetrics and Gynecology faculty of KUMC. Rodgers was part of the generation of black physician reformers who helped bring an end to racially segregated health care in the Kansas City area. He died December 19, 1999.

Marjorie Cates becomes the first African-American woman to graduate from the KU School of Medicine. After post-graduate work, she taught hematology at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; was named director of health services for the federal Department of the Interior; and, eventually, was named chief medical officer of the Washington, D.C., North Area Health Center.

Edward V. Williams MD at 50th anniversary
Edward V. Williams, MD, at KUMC for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his graduation from the School of Medicine.

Walter Marshall Blount, MD, a 1908 graduate of the Meharry Medical College, dies on March 15. Blount was actively engaged in the participation of African-American citizens in civic and political affairs, and in 1928 was elected as a Republican member to the Kansas Legislature. There he focused on eliminating discrimination at the University of Kansas and focused especially on improved health care for black citizens. His major legislative achievement was helping to open the opportunity for African-American students to complete the full four-year curriculum and obtain the MD degree at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Norge Jerome, PhD, KUMC professor of Preventive Medicine, was the first person in the world to become a nutritional anthropologist. With training in clinical nutrition and cultural anthropology, Jerome pioneered the field and founded the Committee on Nutritional Anthropology.

Herman Watson, MD, received his Medical Degree from the KU School of Medicine in 1943. He completed post graduate training in General Surgery, and eventually opened a private practice in the Kansas City area. He served as president of the Kansas City Medical Society, and on the executive council of the Kansas City Surgical Society. He and his family were active in various social and ethical issues, which, on occasion, lead to non-violent protest and brief jail stays during the 1970s. Watson believed that unjust behavior and prejudice was a threat to all.

The University of Kansas Medical Center begins active recruitment of minority students.

Last modified: Mar 16, 2011