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Fighting for an Education: How the U.S. Barred African Americans from Medical School

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In honor of Black History Month, we’re taking a look at historically black medical schools and how they found a way to rise above systemic racism to make sure African Americans could pursue their dreams of becoming doctors and nurses. Black people were often denied access to medical care, so members of the community focused on advancing their education to make sure they could provide care to their own.

Although many facilities, institutions, and people in the U.S. tried to keep black people from achieving a certain means of success, these brave providers found a way to persevere.

The Color Line in Medicine

For decades, what was known as the “the color line” barred African Americans from pursuing a degree in medicine. In the aftermath of the Civil War, hospitals and healthcare facilities refused to treat black patients, while others would keep them separate from the white patients, usually treating them in basements and undeveloped settings.

During the late 1800s, medical schools were closed to black students in the South, but a few were willing to admit black students in the North and Midwest, including Yale and Harvard. Many aspiring African American professionals had to travel overseas to Europe, where these exclusions didn’t exist to get their medical degrees.

By 1860, just nine schools in the North were admitting black students, including Bowdoin in Maine, the Medical School of the University of New York, Castleton Medical School in Vermont, Berkshire Medical School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Rush Medical School in Chicago, the Eclectic Medical School of Philadelphia, the Homeopathic College of Cleveland, the American Medical College, and the Medical School of Harvard University.

It’s important to remember that the “color line” wasn’t set in stone. Many communities and institutions changed their approach to discrimination as the years went on.

As Stephen B. Thomas, PhD writes in The Color Line: Race Matters in the Elimination of Health Disparities:

The “color line” is not fixed but ripples through time, finding expression at distinct stages of our development as a nation. As the meaning of race has changed over time, its burdens and privileges have shifted among population groups. At one time in our history, for instance, the Irish and Italians were considered “non-White,” along with other immigrants who were not descendants of the early Anglo-Saxon Protestant settlers.

The First Historically Black Medical Schools

From 1868 to 1904, seven historically black medical schools were founded in the U.S. The first was Howard University, one of the nation’s most influential historically black colleges and universities, located in the heart of Washington, D.C.

It was founded with the expressed purpose of educating black doctors. It opened in 1968 to both black and white students, including women. The first faculty included four white professors and one black, Dr. Alexander T. Augusta.

Dr. Augusta had been in charge of the Toronto City Hospital. He was also the first African American to serve in Freedmen’s Hospital in D.C., but he was only hired as “demonstrator of anatomy,” which restricted his duties and autonomy on the job.

Several schools soon followed in Howard’s footsteps, including Meharry Medical College, which was established in 1876 in Nashville, Tennessee. With just a dozen students, the school disrupted the color line in the South by admitting students of color. History suggests that the Meharry brothers, who built the school, were originally befriended by a group of African Americans, which prompted them to fight for social equity.

Leonard Medical School in North Carolina was founded in 1882 to assist the programs created at Meharry and Howard. It was one of the most successful historically black medical schools of the time. The Baptist Mission for Society for Negroes supported the school. Students were taught by a group of leading white physicians from the Raleigh community. Unfortunately, the school eventually closed in 1915 after it was unable to comply with the new set of medical standards laid out in the Flexner Report on Medical Education, published in 1910.

Historically black medical schools often lacked the funding and support to keep up with these trends in the industry. The Flexner Report called for new approaches in medicine, making way for more advanced diagnostic tools, treatment regimens, and clinical equipment, much of which was denied to historically black medical schools. Every time the industry moved forward, it created new hurdles for these institutions to overcome.

By 1914, four of the six newly formed historically black medical schools had disappeared, leaving only Howard and Meharry. In 1905, there were 1,465 African American doctors, with only 14.5% of them coming from predominantly white medical schools. Almost 2,400 physicians graduated from Howard and Meharry medical schools from 1890 to the end of WWI.

This discrimination kept countless aspiring providers from entering the world of medicine, making it that much harder for African Americans to access state-of-the-art care. We are still feeling the effects today. Just 5% of physicians working in the U.S. currently identify as black or of African descent, even though black people make up 12% of the population.

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