On August 8, 1938, the Kansas Board of Regents unanimously resolved that a pernicious policy more than three decades old that prevented African Americans from earning an MD at the University of Kansas School of Medicine was no longer acceptable.
The immediate result of this vote was the admission of Edward Vernon Williams to the upper level, or clinical program, of the Medical School in September 1938. It was followed, in September 1939, by the admission of Donald Sheffield Ferguson, who in many ways had been the lead activist attempting to break down the barriers.
These two men rank, respectively, as the first and second African American graduates of the University of Kansas School of Medicine. But the longer-term effects of this Board of Regents resolution meant that KU finally was on the road to abolishing racial segregation and discrimination years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act made such practices unlawful on a national basis.
Like everything associated with the history of race relations in the United States, the situation regarding the KU School of Medicine and its exclusionary policies is extremely complicated.
Outright prejudice certainly seems to have been a major factor. However, financial considerations that were a function of the Med School’s tenuous ongoing support from the state during the first few decades of its existence as a four-year institution also played a part.
Indeed, the lack of adequate state appropriations forced the Med School’s Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital to rely to an extreme extent on revenues generated by private pay patients. Since the hospital’s location in the Rosedale section of Kansas City, Kansas, was just across the state line from Kansas City, Missouri, many of these patients were white Missourians who were accustomed to “Jim Crow” laws that sanctioned racial segregation and discrimination.
KU administrators feared that these white patients would not come – and that their white doctors would not recommend Bell Memorial Hospital – if care was provided in an integrated environment or if black medical students were in attendance. Amplifying this latter concern was the hands-on nature of clinical training. The idea of black students touching white patients, particularly white women, was an act that violated mainstream societal mores of the time.
To prevent these outcomes and maintain a steady revenue flow, KU – a public institution in a state that legally was supposed to be color-blind in higher education – essentially adopted the exclusionary racial policies of neighboring Missouri.
Black patients were segregated in a flimsy wooden facility derided as “a firetrap,” and known colloquially as “the barracks.” Black medical students were simply denied the opportunity to obtain the final two years of clinical study at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Instead, after finishing the first two years of scientific instruction – which at that time took place mainly at KU’s Lawrence campus – would-be African American physicians were forced to go elsewhere to complete their medical education.
For years, Kansas civil rights activists had decried this situation. But petitions and the occasional newspaper or magazine article did little to alter the status quo.
In spite of these conditions, a few truly determined African American residents of Kansas sought to pursue a medical degree from KU. One such was Donald Sheffield Ferguson. The son of a poor farmer in Oak Mills, Kansas, some twelve miles outside of Leavenworth, Ferguson truly had a tough row to hoe to achieve his dream.
In a handwritten letter to KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley, dated September 24, 1926, Ferguson inquired about the possibility of beginning his undergraduate studies in the spring 1927 semester. He explained that he wanted to study medicine, and indicated that he would need “to take as light a course [load] as I can because I intend to work my way through.”
Ferguson concluded his missive with heartfelt sentiment. “I know that my race will need me in the future,” he declared, “and I want to be as great a service as possible.”
Three days later, O.O. Stoland, secretary of the University, responded to Ferguson and requested transcripts of his high school and college work to help determine how he might enter KU in the second semester. In the correspondence that followed over the next few months, arrangements were made for Ferguson to begin classes. However, his request for assistance in obtaining employment, an issue about which Ferguson was “deeply concerned,” seems to have elicited little more from Stoland than the address of the YMCA at KU.
In any event, Ferguson did begin classes at KU in the spring semester of 1927. With money tight, he endured an erratic undergraduate existence and often took a part-time class schedule. “It was work on the farm, go to school, work on the farm, go to school,” as the writer of his obituary in the Kansas City Star put it many years later.
In between, Ferguson was a rural schoolteacher in Atchison County and worked as a dining car waiter for the Union Pacific railroad. With most of his earnings going toward tuition and housing expenses, there was little left over for anything else. “He lived weeks at a time on crackers, money was that short,” remembered one of his sisters.
But Ferguson persevered. In June 1932 he completed his undergraduate pre-med degree with a GPA of 2.11.
Ferguson promptly applied to the KU School of Medicine. Records indicate he was accepted, but was then taken off the list because he failed, or perhaps could not afford, to send in the $10 deposit. He tried again in 1933. This time, with the money apparently in hand, he was able to begin the Med School’s two-year scientific program, of which the first three semesters were conducted on Mount Oread.
While Ferguson was single-mindedly pursuing his dream, larger events that would ultimately have an effect on his quest were also under way. In December 1930, for example, the Minutes of the Administrative Committee of the KU School of Medicine reveal consideration of the question of whether the Med School was “prepared to carry colored students through the full four years.”
Of the twelve men in this group, which was chaired by Medical School Dean Harry Wahl, only one – unnamed in the report – apparently disagreed with the feeling that “with the present facilities this would be unwise and would only stir up friction between the colored and white patients as well as between the students.”
The minutes went on to state that most of the committee members “seemed to be quite concerned with this institution having the reputation of being a hospital for colored patients.” A related worry was over the perceptions white patients might have “if colored students were included among the other students, inasmuch as medical students are frequently looked upon by patients as doctors. As long as most of our patients are pay patients it would not be practical.”
Practicalities – within this mindset of racial separation – do appear to have been at the heart of the Administrative Committee’s attitude (though, to be sure, this summary report hardly qualifies as a full transcript of the actual discussion that took place). The minutes also show a willingness to at least consider admitting African American students to the Med School’s clinical program “if we had more facilities for colored patients and had an operating room and other rooms where colored patients and students are likely to be…”
Wahl essentially reiterated these arguments in January 1931 in a written response to a citizen’s group that had apparently questioned the Med School’s exclusionary policies. But Wahl also seemed to imply a belief that few African Americans would qualify for admission to the clinical program in any event. “There would probably not be more than one or two colored students,” advised the dean, “in a class of 50 or 60.”
One of those rare prospective African American candidates – not that Dean Wahl or anyone else realized it at the time – also made his first appearance in 1931. His name was Edward Vernon Williams. A native of Ellsworth, Kansas – where black residents were few and far between – Williams was the valedictorian of his 1930 high school class.
He had also done some college prep work and had taken a few pre-med classes, an experience that seemed to focus his career ambitions on becoming a physician. After spending an additional year in Ellsworth to earn some college money by performing various odd jobs, Williams entered KU in September 1931.
Like Ferguson, who was then an upperclassman, Williams also needed to work his way through, and apparently found a position as a houseboy in Lawrence. Unlike Ferguson, Williams was an exceptional student. He majored in zoology, would go on to attain a 3.43 GPA, and became a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
As Williams later recalled it, he owed his success in school to the fact that “I liked to study and learn things.” As for the discriminatory atmosphere on campus, Williams claimed to have shrugged it off. “I was distressed by it,” he said in a 1992 interview, “but not to the point that it was my occupation. I was more interested in getting my work done in college.”
In March 1934, while Ferguson was attending the first year of the Med School’s pre-clinical scientific program, a legislative hearing in Topeka was convened to determine why African American students like him were routinely denied the opportunity to complete their MD at KU. The proceedings began at the behest of Rep. William H. Blount, a Republican and African American physician from Kansas City, Kansas.
Blount and the specially appointed members of his committee convened their hearing to find out why “colored students are not permitted to complete their course” at the KU School of Medicine. The Med School’s Dean Wahl and KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley answered the bulk of the questions, though several members of the Kansas Board of Regents also made comments.
For the most part, Wahl, Lindley, and the rest relied on the same old facts, figures, and rationalizations that had been put forth for years to justify the Med School’s exclusionary policies.
State funding was inadequate. Hospital revenues were overly reliant on private pay patients. A significant percentage of these patients were white Missourians who would not want to be examined by black doctors. And unless duplicative facilities could be built to segregate black patients and medical students from the white ones, integrating the Med School’s clinical program was simply impractical.
Blount was completely unimpressed by these arguments. He repeatedly reminded his listeners that law already on the books in Kansas made it illegal for institutions of higher education to discriminate on the basis of race. Further, since there was no legal basis for segregation, there was no reason to appropriate additional funds to build duplicative segregated facilities.
Although the regional African American press gave great play to this hearing, it appears to have achieved little of immediate consequence. Nonetheless, Ferguson continued to pursue his medical studies at KU. He completed the 1933-34 academic year in the scientific program on Mount Oread, and then apparently dropped out for a year, perhaps because of finances. However, KU School of Medicine records show that he returned for 1935-36, and successfully completed the school term, albeit with a C average, undoubtedly due in part to the fact that he needed to continue working to support himself.
For the next few years, however, Ferguson’s attempts to complete his medical education at KU were thwarted. The official explanation was his low grades – a factor, it should be noted that also regularly prevented the bottom 10 percent of white students from continuing on to the clinical program.
But by this time, it was also clear to KU administrators that Ferguson was what might be termed an “activist” in present-day parlance. Even if they were willing to admit Ferguson, his modus operandi by this point suggested he would hardly be a “model” token African American student. He did not seem the type who would be content to put up with restrictions on seeing white patients and otherwise voluntarily absenting himself from the normal hospital rounds experienced by typical white medical students.
Meanwhile, Williams – after having completed his undergraduate degree in 1935 and once again taking a year to earn money at odd jobs – successfully applied to the KU School of Medicine. He began in September 1936. In distinction to Ferguson, who at this point had apparently made known his unwillingness to accept the need to transfer elsewhere to complete his MD, Williams was sanguine about this prospect. “I felt it was unfortunate,” as he recollected it years later. “But I didn’t gripe about it. I knew I was going to have to go somewhere else, so I just accepted it.”
And in 1937, Geraldine Mowbray, a Howard graduate and the daughter of two professors who taught at Western Junior College, a primarily black institution in Kansas City, Kansas, was also accepted into the two-year pre-clinical program. But lest she have any doubts about her long-term future at KU, Dean Wahl sent her an advisory letter in July of that year.
“It has been understood that members of your race enter the medical school for the first and second years and cannot be admitted to the clinical years,” wrote Wahl to Mowbray. “We want you to know that if you enter the school, it is only for the first two years after which you would have to transfer to another school.”
Mowbray, who ranks as the KU Medical School’s first female African American student, made it through her first few semesters, mainly earning grades of B and C. By her fourth semester though, she was beginning to gain the reputation of a “troublemaker” because of her insistence on seeing white patients just as her peers did. Eventually, she would depart KU for Howard University.
But time was running out on KU’s exclusionary policies. In 1938, Ferguson – who was simply refusing to go away – wrote to the Med School’s Dean Wahl to inquire about his “scholastic standing.” Ferguson also pressed Wahl to let him know “whether my first two years…were completed satisfactorily.”
In response, Wahl noted that while Ferguson’s record “was satisfactory,” it was also “down near the lower group, so we could not be certain whether you would be admitted into the third year.” As such, counseled Wahl, “I would advise that you try to get into another school where there is more room and more adequate facilities.”
Undoubtedly, Ferguson derived some gratification from this reply. After all, he had gotten the dean of the KU School of Medicine to admit in writing that his work was “satisfactory.” The remainder of the letter, however, was hardly likely to please Ferguson’s long-term professional ambitions. But it hardly inhibited him either.
On June 11, 1938, Ferguson upped the ante, and mailed in a deposit of $25 to reserve a spot in the 1938-39 school year. Five days later, Wahl mailed it back on the grounds that Ferguson’s acceptance had not occurred and was by no means assured.
It is possible that Ferguson was not the only African American student on Wahl’s mind at this time. Also in June 1938, Williams had completed his pre-clinical years at KU, once again earning solid grades. But unlike Ferguson, Williams seemed willing to accept the status quo and proceed elsewhere to complete his MD. However, unbeknownst to Williams, his superb academic work had garnered a core of influential supporters who apparently began working on his behalf so that he could remain at KU.
The lack of definitive primary source documents makes it difficult to determine precisely what happened next. But circumstantial evidence strongly implies that Ferguson had a hand in persuading African American leaders to bring the Medical School’s exclusionary policies to the attention of Kansas Governor Walter Huxman, a New Deal Democrat with a decided antipathy to racial segregation.
On July 11, 1938, Huxman sent a letter to KU Chancellor Lindley inquiring about whether there was any racial discrimination in the admissions procedures to the KU School of Medicine. The letter followed the governor’s meeting with “a delegation of colored citizens” who had charged that, “no colored student has ever been permitted to graduate from the Medical School,” and further, that African Americans were “always advised or asked to go somewhere else to complete their medical training.”
“I am not writing this letter on the assumption that this charge is true,” Huxman explained, “but I do think it is entitled to a thorough investigation because our schools must be and remain open to all classes of citizens.”
The governor concluded his note – copies of which had been sent to Dean Wahl and the Kansas Board of Regents – with the “hope” that “if there is anything to this charge…you will be able to see that such a condition is corrected or the impression is corrected, because we do not want such an erroneous impression to exist if it is not justified by the facts.”
Of course the impression was not erroneous. It was absolutely true, and the only “facts” that Lindley and Wahl had at their disposal were those they had been using for years to support KU’s position. In his response to the governor two days later, Lindley used these arguments yet again.
Pointing out that the situation was “a problem of long standing in most medical schools in the North,” the chancellor expressed his “regret that negroes do not have equal opportunity with whites in this respect.” However, since “white patients do not wish to have negro interns to serve them,” and “inasmuch as our Hospital is about seventy-five percent self-supporting,” the “wishes of the patients” had to be paramount.
Lindley did suggest the situation might be ameliorated in the near future, once the hospital’s new “Negro Ward” was constructed. Its segregated facilities would offer “some opportunity for negro students,” though the overall quality of this contemplated clinical experience would not be at the same level as that accorded to white students.
Like Rep. Blount before him, Huxman was not swayed by these arguments. Unlike Blount, however, Huxman had more power to bear on the situation. After decrying racial exclusion as “a very poor policy for the state of Kansas,” and wondering whether the revenue from private pay patients was overemphasized, the governor questioned whether this income stream justified “dividing and segregating our students along racial lines.” This rhetoric notwithstanding, Huxman made it clear he did not want to be “contentious” or “unreasonable.”
As such, the governor urged the chancellor that “we should do something about this matter.” Not that Huxman had anything big in mind, like actually enforcing the law regardless of the economic consequences. No, what Huxman seemed to want was a gesture, a way “to make it possible for at least one negro student to become a graduate of our medical school.”
Even this proposed baby step seemed too much for Lindley. Faced with the realization that KU’s old justifications for discriminating against African American medical students were becoming shopworn, the chancellor contacted Dean Wahl to come up with some new rationalizations to better explain “our point of view.”
As KU Medical Center archivist Nancy Hulston has explained in a 1996 article in Kansas History, Wahl set to work immediately. He “drew up a questionnaire that he sent to nearly every major medical school from Washington DC to Colorado,” seeking to ascertain their admissions procedures for African American students, the ratio between public funding and private fees, and whether or not they maintained segregated facilities.
“Within a week,” noted Hulston, “thirty-one responses were received…” Of these, “twelve affirmed that they allowed black medical students to study in an unsegregated environment. Of the remaining nineteen replies, most answered unequivocally no, they did not admit black medical students.”
These replies, as Hulston demonstrated in her article, offer an extraordinary snapshot of the institutionalized discrimination then practiced at many of the nation’s medical schools. “In so far as I know, the University of Colorado has never admitted a colored student,” wrote the dean of that university’s school of medicine. “Undoubtedly we would have to admit such a student if pressure were brought to bear on us.” Blacks were also barred from attending Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, though as the dean admitted, “we do not advertise that fact.” And from the State University Medical Center in New Orleans came the comment that “there would be a riot” if it admitted African American students.
This catalogue of exclusionary practices aided KU’s case. But so did the questionnaire’s findings that the majority of northern medical schools that did permit African Americans into their clinical programs enjoyed a high proportion of public funding, while those that discriminated against admitting blacks were more dependent on fees from private-pay patients.
Fortified by this fresh data that seemed to support the Medical School’s position, plus a vote of confidence by the KU Hospital Committee that affirmed the decision to continue discrimination on “practical” grounds, Wahl and a small contingent of Med School professors departed for Topeka on July 19, 1938 for a meeting with Huxman.
The governor remained unmoved. As Hulston reported in her Kansas History article, the “visit with Huxman met with little success.” An account of the meeting in the Topeka State Journal included remarks from the governor to the effect that he believed “the Negroes are entitled to admittance the same as any other person, and that no public institution has the right to set any bars against them.”
Events now moved quickly. On August 8, 1938, the Kansas Board of Regents – apparently acting at Huxman’s urging – unanimously passed a resolution mandating the admission of qualified African American students to the final two years of study at the KU School of Medicine. Additionally, this resolution indicated that an unnamed “negro medical student has met the scholastic requirements and will be promoted to the third year…”
That very day, Edward Vernon Williams became the first African American admitted to the Med School’s clinical program. The news found Williams “astonished and perplexed” as Hulston put it. He personally had not sought this outcome and was not expecting it. Apparently, he also did not trouble himself much to find out how it had happened.
Instead, he entered his third year at the Medical School in September 1938, putting his nose to the grindstone and keeping his head down. He also accepted certain restrictions and modifications to his course of instruction, such as working with private tutors and taking private instruction in the segregated “Negro Ward.”
Meanwhile, Donald Ferguson – arguably a more determined African American seeking admission to the KU School of Medicine’s clinical program, albeit one with weaker academic credentials – was put on hold. On the same day that Williams was notified he was in, Ferguson was informed in a letter from Dean Wahl that he would be “placed on the waiting list for admission to this class.” The letter further advised, “There may be a few vacancies so that you can come in the regular class.”
The limited records in the Ferguson file at the KU Medical Center Archives shed little light on the immediate outcome of this ambiguous offer. But it can be inferred that Ferguson sought and obtained a meeting with one or more of the members of the Kansas Board of Regents shortly thereafter.
On September 15, 1938, he received a letter from Regent R.T. O’Neill reporting that Ferguson’s “matter [had] been referred to a committee of the Board.” While there were “other men ahead of [Ferguson] on the waiting list,” and Ferguson’s grades “while passing, were not strong enough in the opinion of the promotion committee,” O’Neill told Ferguson “Dean Wahl assured the Board that you would be admitted next year.” O’Neill added that he “as well as the other members of the Board, will keep this promise in mind.”
Ironically, just days before this letter had been received, Ferguson and his attorney, Prentice A. Townsend of Atchison, had filed a writ of mandamus with the Kansas Supreme Court, which, if successful, would have compelled the Medical School to admit Ferguson. Since the O’Neill letter indicated admission would take place in 1939, Townsend let the matter drop.
By July 1939, however, Ferguson’s entry into the Med School’s clinical program no longer seemed so certain. In a flurry of correspondence reminiscent of what had taken place a year earlier, Ferguson mailed in a deposit check to secure his spot in the Medical School’s third year roster. Wahl promptly returned it on the grounds that Ferguson had not yet been “officially admitted.”
Wahl further indicated that “an unusually large number of students who are eligible” meant that not everyone who sought admission would get in “because of lack of room.” The best Wahl could offer Ferguson was the promise that “we will give you every consideration.”
This wasn’t good enough for Ferguson. Little more than a week after he’d heard from the dean, Ferguson had his lawyer back in action.
Ever so cordially, but ever so firmly, attorney Townsend wrote to Regent O’Neill “to respectfully refresh your mind as to this young man’s case, and as to the promises made last year, since at the time Dean Wahl assured the Board that he would be admitted this year.” A similar letter was sent to Board Chair Fred Harris. Both missives included copies of the 1938 correspondence that contained the written promise. Additionally, Townsend implied that the writ of mandamus could be revived.
Yet another flurry of letter writing ensued, involving members of the Board of Regents and University administrators. On August 2, 1939, Harris told Townsend “your letter is the first information I have had concerning this matter.” In a note to Wahl written the same day, Harris advised the dean, “I never heard of this matter…and would be glad to have you write me about it.”
Regent O’Neill, meanwhile, seemed to be having a memory problem. In a letter to Wahl on August 4, 1939, O’Neill claimed to “have naturally forgotten about statements you made at the time of the hearing. You must have made some statement that caused me to write the letter I wrote. I will appreciate it very much if you will refresh my recollection.”
On August 4, 1939, Wahl made his response to Harris in a single-spaced typewritten letter that stretched over more than two pages. Calling the situation “the most delicate problem that has come up in the Medical School,” Wahl claimed he did not “definitely remember of making any statement” regarding Ferguson’s firm admission to the 1939-40 school term.
However, admitted the dean, he probably had said something to this effect. Perhaps Regent O’Neill had misunderstood. “I might have said that with the opening of the Negro Ward we could care for the colored medical students more easily and for this reason Mr. Ferguson would have much better reasons for getting in.” Unfortunately, this facility was not yet fully completed. As such, the segregated environment in which Wahl and Lindley had long contemplated teaching black medical students was still not available.
Even if it had been though, Wahl noted that, “Mr. Ferguson would be the type to insist on being taken where white patients are.” This was in contrast to Williams, who during his first year of the clinical program had “not made any insistence on being taken where there are white patients.”
In an aside intended to bolster the argument that Ferguson might cause problems, Wahl related an incident that had taken place in the spring. Geraldine Mowbray, described by Wahl as “a colored girl student” then in her final semester of the Med School’s scientific program, had “insisted on being admitted to the Tuberculosis Ward…in spite of requests for her not to go and examine the patients, all of them being white…” The result, according to Wahl, was “quite a disturbance…not conducive to the recovery of these patients.”
Finally, Wahl pointed out that Ferguson’s “record was not as good as several of the white boys who had to be kept out because we did not have room.” That said, Wahl inferred that he was tiring of the whole situation. He noted that certain students with similar academic credentials to Ferguson could “enroll as irregulars” taking a modified curriculum including summer courses, and that it was “quite probable that Mr. Ferguson could come in this group.”
In the end, that is indeed what happened. Ferguson finally began the clinical program at the KU School of Medicine in September 1939. Chronic problems relating to money and housing continued to stress him, and his grades remained mediocre. However, there is evidence that Ferguson’s dogged perseverance and determination were beginning to impress even Dean Wahl. In February 1940, when Ferguson was seeking a personal loan of $110 from the KU Endowment Association, Wahl wrote an encomium in his behalf. “I think he is a deserving young man,” advised the dean, “and would be very glad to recommend the granting of this loan.”
In 1941, Edward Vernon Williams became the first African American to be graduated from the KU School of Medicine. After interning at Northwestern University and serving in the military at the Mayo Clinic and a Veterans Administration hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, he opened a practice in internal medicine and dermatology in Muskegon, Michigan.
Originally intended to be a temporary set-up, Williams maintained his Muskegon practice for the remainder of his career. Until 1991, the fiftieth anniversary of his Med School graduation, Williams was apparently unaware of the unusual circumstances that enabled his entry into the clinical program.
In 1942, Donald Sheffield Ferguson became the second African American to earn a KU MD. He served in both World War II and Korea, rising to the rank of major in the US Air Force. He opened a private practice in Kansas City, specializing in dermatology and caring for a primarily African American clientele. Later in his career, he worked as a personnel physician for the Bendix Corporation. He was also active in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s.
On November 1, 1989, Donald Sheffield Ferguson, MD, died at the University of Kansas Hospital. He was 82.
“He was meant to be what he wanted to be,” as Ellsworth Boldridge, one of his relatives, put it in the obituary published in the Kansas City Star. “It was that simple.”