Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dr. Bill Roy: "From the very bottom of the American social scale"

Just as it is nearly inconceivable for us older Americans to realize our First Family after January 20th will be an African American family and their two daughters, it also must be very difficult for Americans under fifty to realize the place of African Americans--especially black women--in our society not all that long ago. So I will pursue historically the subject of the rise of Michele Obama to First Lady from the perspective of someone who lived those years when black women were at the very bottom of the American social scale.

First of all, we must recall that until about 40 years ago, all women were markedly limited in their pursuit of any lifetime roll other than homemaker and mother, still their most important callings today. Women who wanted, or had to work outside the home were essentially limited to three professions, teaching, nursing or clerical and secretarial work.

But black women were almost universally excluded from these limited pursuits. For example, I recall seeing my first black apartment store clerk in Macy’s downtown Topeka about 1970.

If black women worked, and many did, they worked as "domestics", a classification that included maids, cooks, cleaning women and not much else. They entered by the back door. Further, black women’s status was diminished by the fact they could produce only black children who were destined to be second-class citizens before the civil rights movement succeeded.

So it was, we had neither black men nor women in my Northwestern Medical School class, and only 13 women and 13 Jews in classes of 130 students. It took a residency at City of Detroit Receiving for me to first work with black doctors and other health professionals.

At Forbes AFB in Topeka, African Americans had a status of equality as illustrated by the disciplining of a warrant officer who made unwelcome advances on a black nurse, telling her he liked "his women like his coffee, sweet, hot, and black." He was gone after a formal investigation.

When I began private practice in Topeka, most obstetricians here were seeing black women only at times when they were not seeing white patients. They did not want to offend their white patients by having black people in the waiting room when they were there.

By the mid-60s, that discrimination was history, but the 2-4 bed hospital wards were segregated. After conferring informally with my fellow physicians, I went to Stormont Vail Hospital Administrator Carl Lamely in 1966, and suggested it was time to integrate our wards. Carl said yes, and, bang, he did it. He later told me he fielded only two angry phone callers.

I spoke to Sister at St. Francis who assured me they had never segregated patients. And thereafter, they did not.

At this time, if a bride wished to have a wedding reception at one local country club, and also wished to have a black bridesmaid, she had to choose between the two, because up until at least 1969, the club did not admit black guests, even to private events. Yes, you read that right.

I spoke to the country club board and was told that "older club members," considered the club to be an extension of their living rooms, and would be offended by the presence of blacks--and also the black employees wouldn‘t like it. That policy broke down soon the next year when Kansas University brought a black football coach to the spring golf outing.

Yes, that was Michele Robinson Obama, Princeton and Harvard Law graduate, whom you saw entering the front door of the White House with her husband this week.

But in the 1950s, not only would she have attended a segregated primary school in Topeka, as an adult woman she might well have had to see her physician during segregated office hours; and if hospitalized before 1966, she would have been placed in a segregated ward.

And you would have not seen this distinguished woman in that beautiful red dress entering the front door of the country club, let alone the White House. She would have been left at the church after the wedding and before the reception.

November 4, 2008 was an historical day.

Dr. Roy is a Kansas lawyer, physician and former congressman (2nd Dist. '70 - '74) and can be reached at

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