Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture Highlights Desegregation of Medical Schools

Vanessa Northington Gamble, M.D., Ph.D.

The visual images of the women — one a 15-year-old attempting to attend her first day of school at Little Rock Central High, the other a 21-year-old first-year medical student at the University of Arkansas — represented strikingly different experiences, according to Vanessa Northington Gamble, M.D., Ph.D., University Professor of Medical Humanities at GW. Gamble's explanation, part of her lecture, "The Civil Rights Movement and Education: The Desegregation of American Medical Schools,"  came during the inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture, held Jan. 24 and sponsored by the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“These pictures of the solemn-faced black girl, alone, wearing sunglasses, clutching her books and subjected to the jeers of the white mob are some of the most vivid and enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement and figure prominently in the historical narratives of school desegregation in our country,” said Gamble of Elizabeth Eckford, who had been turned away by National Guardsman from entering school on Sept. 25, 1957.

The next image, however, of Edith Irby, a black woman in a sea of white male faces, depicted peaceful integration, when Irby started medical school on Sept. 10, 1948. “This day … marked the first time a Southern medical school, other than a black one, had opened its doors to an African American,” explained Gamble, adding that the photo appeared in Ebony magazine, Life magazine, and newspapers across the country.

The two different women, set almost a decade apart, with conflicting first days of integration in Little Rock struck Gamble, but she focused on Irby’s school: “Why did the University of Arkansas become the first medical school in the South to desegregate?”

As Gamble explained, in 1948, racism and segregation severely restricted academic opportunities for black students; in fact, most students attended the historically black universities of Howard, located in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee.  For students who wanted to attend public state universities, the odds were likely that they would be rejected solely on the basis of race. But the NAACP, with leadership from legal defense fund head Charles Hamilton Houston and his student and protégée, Thurgood Marshall, had an idea.

Houston, Gamble said, feared that a formal attack on Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld “separate but equal” racial segregation, would be unsuccessful. “Instead,” Gamble said, “he conceptualized an incremental strategy that focused on test cases that he believed would get favorable precedents and that would eventually overturn Plessy.”

Houston and Marshall strategically selected public schools where they could point out that black citizens were taxpayers, and they focused specifically on professional and graduate schools, which were more vulnerable to legal challenges and made for less contentious battleground. In one of the first cases, Gaines v. Canada, Lloyd Gaines, a 25-year-old black man, applied for admission to the University of Missouri School of Law.  He was summarily rejected because of his race. Houston took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the university had to either admit Gaines or set up a separate law school for African American students. The university opted for the latter, and Gaines was accepted to the alternate school — but he disappeared. While Gaines was never found again and mystery surrounds his disappearance, his case set a precedent.

“What Houston wanted to put on trial was equality,” Gamble said.  “He knew that some states did not have the money to provide separate and equal professional education to black Americans.”

The University of Arkansas was one such school.

There, Herman Thomas Sr., chairman of the Board of Trustees, anticipated the university — which was largely autonomous, operating beyond the confines of the local government — knew it was a matter of “when” not “if” a black student would apply for admission. Thomas announced on Jan. 30, 1948, without an official vote of the board or consultation with the government, that qualified black students would be admitted to the school. That August, Edith Irby was accepted to the medical school.

Irby, who ranked 28 out of 230 applicants, held degrees in chemistry, biology, and physics, and had been admitted to eight medical schools, including the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, where she had taken summer graduate classes. The University of Arkansas, however, was her first choice.

To accommodate her and avoid criticism that she was taking the spot of a white student, the Board of Trustees voted to increase that year’s class size by one — from 90 to 91. That particular class of students also included three white women, one of whom became Irby’s best friend. Irby, Gamble added, believed that she didn’t experience direct discriminatory acts because of her race, but rather because of her gender — her classmates felt that the first black student at the school should’ve been a man.

Irby attended the same classes and labs as those in her class and worked on white cadavers, but in keeping with segregationist laws at the time, she had to use a separate bathroom and eat in a separate dining room, though her friends and classmates eventually joined her for meals.

“She later stated, ‘My way of fighting is to go in and do the best I can,’” said Gamble, who interviewed Irby. “She also said, ‘I knew I had to make it.’”

Irby, with support from the black community, graduated on June 16, 1952, ranked 46 out of 79 students. A pioneer, she was the first black intern at the University of Arkansas hospital, and in 1985, she became the first female president of the National Medical Association. She also paved the way for future black medical students; while other schools opened their doors to black students throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the University of Arkansas continued to admit black students every year after 1948.

“Now the question I asked at the beginning was, why Arkansas?” Gamble said. “I think there was a confluence of factors of why. One was Arkansas was a poor state. It could not fight desegregation court cases. The other thing was that it had an autonomous university system; the university could do things without going to the government. And also, in 1948, Arkansas was a racially moderate state.”

The final factor, Gamble said, was Irby herself, with both her academic credentials and strong desire to succeed.

“The desegregation of the University of Arkansas Medical School and Edith Irby’s historic admission received nationwide attention in September 1948,” Gamble said. “Today, it is almost forgotten as a milestone in the history of medicine … Yet the story of Edith Irby’s entrance into medical school in September 1948 is critical for a more complete understanding of the history of school desegregation and the history of African Americans in medicine. It, too, deserves pride of place in the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and in the history of American medical education.”