“There Is Too Much Talk Here About Segregation”
By the early 1930s, a longstanding practice that effectively denied African Americans the opportunity to complete their medical education at the University of Kansas School of Medicine was coming under increasing scrutiny.
This exclusionary policy was neither sanctioned by law nor formally codified in the Medical School’s admissions procedures. Instead, it was an “understanding” that Med School administrators justified on the grounds of “practicalities.”
To Kansas Representative William H. Blount, an African American physician from Kansas City, Kansas, these rationalizations were bogus and untenable – let alone illegal. On March 5, 1934, he convened a hearing in the Kansas House of Representatives that sought to investigate “certain alleged discriminations against Negro students at Kansas University Medical School.”
At this hearing KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley and KU School of Medicine Dean Harry R. Wahl were forced to admit that segregation and discrimination did indeed rule the roost. But their answers also revealed the complicated dynamics of race and revenue under which the KU School of Medicine had to operate during the first few decades of its existence.
When the present-day KU School of Medicine came into being in 1905, it lacked anything remotely resembling the degree of public funding a state sponsored educational entity might realistically expect.
The reasons for this absence of support were manifold, but perhaps the most significant had to do with the school’s location in Rosedale (a part of present-day Kansas City, Kansas), cheek-by-jowl with the Missouri border and some 400 miles distant from the furthest reaches of western Kansas. Many Kansans – including state legislators guarding the purse strings, plus physicians and ordinary citizens outside the northeast quadrant of the state – came to believe that KU’s medical school and its Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial teaching hospital would mainly benefit the residents of Kansas City, Missouri.
In a way, this belief became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the Kansas legislature refusing to extend fully adequate appropriations to the Medical School on a regular basis, KU administrators had no choice but to seek revenue-generating private pay patients to support the operation of the hospital. A huge number of these patients did indeed live on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
These Missourians, the vast majority of whom were white, hailed from a state with “Jim Crow” laws, i.e. laws that sanctioned racial separation and discrimination. Kansas, on the other hand, was technically a largely color-blind state from a legal standpoint – though not necessarily always in practice.
University administrators concluded, and perhaps even feared, that the hospital’s paying white “customers” from Missouri might take their business elsewhere if KU forced them to receive care under the observation of African American medical students. (At this time, Bell Memorial Hospital was not integrated. Black patients were treated – by white doctors and nurses – in the so-called “barracks,” a separate and highly unequal flimsy wooden facility, and later, in the purpose-built segregated Eaton Ward.)
Beyond these bottom line considerations, another concern was the thought that these prospective African American students, as part of their clinical training, might engage in the act of touching the patients, a particular no-no of the times, especially as it regarded black men and white women.
Based on these rationales, it became generally understood that blacks would be prevented from completing an MD at the KU School of Medicine. African Americans could receive their first two years of pre-clinical scientific instruction at KU, which was taught primarily at the Lawrence campus. But the final two years of hands-on clinical training had to be obtained elsewhere, often at historically black medical schools such as Howard in Washington, DC, and Meharry in Nashville, Tennessee.
For example, in 1922, DeNorval Unthank, nephew of locally prominent black physician Dr. Thomas Unthank who was known as the “father of Kansas City’s Negro Hospitals,” was denied admission to the KU School of Medicine’s clinical program after having completed the first two years of scientific study. He transferred to Howard University where he completed his MD.
In the same year, Willard Johnson, another African American student with similar academic credentials, was also prevented from finishing his medical education at KU. He moved to California and pursued an alternative career.
The situation at the KU School of Medicine may have been egregious, but it was hardly isolated. At KU’s Lawrence campus, African American students were forced to sit in a segregated section of the cafeteria in the Kansas Union. They were barred from participating in intercollegiate athletics and numerous other activities ranging from the KU Band to ROTC. And they regularly were exempted from the swimming proficiency graduation requirement to prevent them from using the University’s pool. They also faced discrimination in housing.
In August 1927, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) published an article in its official organ, The Crisis, written by a former KU African American student named Loren Miller, who had left the University completely disillusioned by its racial policies.
This piece caught the eye of Marcet Haldeman-Julius, who with her husband Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, ran a politically progressive publishing house out of Girard, Kansas. In the January 1928 edition of their eponymous Haldeman-Julius Monthly, Marcet authored a lead story decrying the sorry situation faced by African American students at the Sunflower State’s public institutions of higher education. A major portion of her ire was directed at the University of Kansas and its School of Medicine.
She reported that “the colored students” who had completed the first two years and sought to continue into the clinical program “are eliminated first as a whole.” However, Marcet gave a pass to the Med School’s dean, Dr. Harry R. Wahl, and did not hold him responsible for this situation. It was “not because of his personal prejudices either against Negroes or against having them complete their course under him,” she wrote.
Instead, she found fault with the state’s paucity of financial support and the resulting need to rely on private-pay patients. “When people pay,” as Marcet noted, “they can dictate in large measure as to whom they will have attend them.”
Marcet went on to note that even a modest amount of public financial support would begin to remedy this situation. Its absence, however, meant that “no provision for the colored students is even being considered and no attempt is being made to solve this predicament. Naturally,” she concluded, “the colored students are bitter.”
Three years later in January 1931, Dean Wahl amplified the gist of the remarks he had apparently made to Marcet, this time in response to complaints from an African American civic group. In a document titled “Comments on the Petition of the Citizens’ League of the State of Kansas Relative to Negro Medical Students,” Wahl reiterated the rationale for denying blacks the opportunity to complete their medical education at KU. However, he also came across as a convinced segregationist.
“There is no discrimination against Negro medical students,” he asserted, “other than that which is enforced upon the University of Kansas School of Medicine because of the dearth of physical facilities and the lack of financial support from the state to make an arrangement for their case feasible and practical.”
As Wahl further explained it, “the reason colored medical students are not allowed in the Bell Memorial Hospital is because this hospital is largely a private teaching hospital” and “the great majority of patients are pay patients.” As such, “their attitude toward the presence of colored students is a very vital point,” especially since many patients “look upon…students as ‘doctors’ and the large majority of them would resent being taken care of by ‘colored doctors.’”
This prospective resentment was something Wahl could not risk. “The hospital is a competitive organization,” advised the dean, “and if the white patients…protested against any students or doctors they would refuse to come here, the beds would be unoccupied, and the hospital would be compelled to face a deficit.”
Indeed, money matters seemed foremost in Wahl’s mind. “The state pays less than one-third the cost of [the hospital’s] maintenance,” Wahl told the petitioners, a rate that was far below the level at which “many other states support the teaching hospitals of their medical schools.”
Further, while it was true that indigent or “county patients” who did not personally pay for their care could be made available to African American medical students for clinical study, there was still that pesky problem of blacks and whites being together in the same building. This could be solved “as soon as there are additional buildings, duplicate operating rooms, laboratories, and delivery rooms” which would enable the Med School “to open the third and fourth years to colored medical students.”
Beyond all this though, Wahl may well have revealed a degree of prejudice that Marcet Haldeman-Julius was unwilling to accord him three years earlier. “It should also be borne in mind,” Wahl added toward the end of his comments, “that there would probably not be more than one or two colored students in a class of 55 or 60.”
At the moment, however, even this putative handful was purely conceptual. The number of African American students in the Med School’s clinical program was zero.
On March 5, 1934, a legislative hearing in Topeka was convened to investigate discriminatory practices at the University of Kansas in general, and to specifically determine why would-be black physicians were routinely denied the opportunity to complete their MDs at the KU School of Medicine. The proceedings began at the behest of Rep. William H. Blount, a Republican and an African American physician from Kansas City, Kansas.
Originally from Texas, Blount had earned an undergraduate degree from the all-black Wiley College, and then went on to become an MD at the historically black Meharry Medical College, from which he was graduated in 1908. Eventually he and his young family settled in Ennis, Texas. He built up his practice and also participated in efforts to secure voting rights for African Americans. These political activities provoked threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
The prospect of physical danger was apparently all too real, and in 1920, Blount and his family relocated to Kansas City, Kansas. The move to Kansas did not dim Blount’s ardor for social justice. He became president of the local branch of the NAACP, sought to improve conditions for African American patients at KU’s Bell Memorial Hospital, and challenged segregation on the University’s Lawrence campus. In 1928, he won the first of four terms to the Kansas House of Representatives.
Using an 1874 Kansas law that declared it illegal for any state university or college to “make any distinction on account of race or color” as his premise, Blount and the specially appointed members of his committee sought to find out why “colored students are not permitted to complete their course” at the KU School of Medicine.
The committee called the Kansas Board of Regents, as well as KU Chancellor Lindley and KU School of Medicine Dean Wahl, to testify. According to the transcript of this hearing, Wahl and Lindley answered the bulk of the questions. For the most part, they trotted out the same rationalizations KU had been giving for years.
“The reason that colored students do not finish at the hospital is mostly an economic one,” contended Wahl in his opening statement. “Most people in the state do not realize the amount of fees we obtain from patients – during the last year the fees amounted to something like $270,000. Of these fees but 10 percent came from colored patients, the other 90 percent came from white patients. But if we had colored boys in the operating room these [white] patients simply would not come.”
Wahl then underlined this point, adding, “Some doctors who bring in [white] patients, who pay the hospital thousands of dollars a year, say they cannot and will not urge their [white] patients to come to us” if there was the chance they might be attended by African American medical students. “As long as we can say that we have no colored students in the wards nor in the operating rooms, we have no difficulty in keeping our beds filled…”
In the dean’s view, this situation was not a matter of discrimination. Instead, it was simply a function of practicalities made necessary by the state’s unwillingness to provide the Medical School and its teaching hospital with additional – albeit duplicative and segregated – facilities.
“The faculty has no opposition whatever to colored students taking the medical course,” he asserted for the record. “In fact, we have had a number of colored students who were unusually competent, and we would have liked to carry them through the last two years of medicine in our hospital…”
But not to worry, Wahl seemed to indicate – all it would take to remedy this problem was an application of the “separate but equal” doctrine.
“Of course, if we had facilities so that we might segregate colored patients from white patients, and colored students from white students, we would be in the position to handle this proposition of colored boys finishing the last two years…If we had a separate maternity room; had a separate operating theater, then we could let these colored boys finish at the hospital, but as long as we lack the physical facilities, it is not practical to do so.”
The only other alternative, added Wahl, was a major increase in state funding. “If our hospital was operated as they are in Iowa and Nebraska – its operation paid for by the State – with no pay patients, then we could let the bars down, as we would have income from the State to run the institution.”
These either/or alternatives – “segregation or state support” – did not impress Rep. Blount. “Don’t you think that these doctors you speak of [the ones Wahl warned would not bring their patients to KU if there were African American students in the hospital] would be willing to be governed by the laws of the state of Kansas?” he asked Wahl. “They ought to be perfectly willing to be governed by the laws of Kansas,” responded the dean, “but their patients are not.” And since, “the greater percentage of our patients come from Missouri,” they “have no particular interest in the laws of Kansas.”
On and on it went, with both sides sticking to their positions. Blount insisted that the “laws in Kansas…should be respected,” and that the KU School of Medicine’s refusal to admit African Americans to the clinical program meant that “colored people don’t have rights to which we are entitled – rights which have been given us by statute.”
In what must have been a particularly emotional moment in these proceedings, Blount tried to make his point a matter of state pride and national patriotism.
“[We are] just asking that the laws of Kansas be observed, and we are going to take a stand against any discrimination because we are tax payers and citizens; we are loyal to the American flag, and we are protesting against the State allowing the prejudices of people from Missouri against colored students to bar our students from the hospital.”
Wahl remained unyielding to this line of argument. “That sounds all right,” he said at one point, “but I don’t believe it is practical to carry it out, as long as the state [doesn't] appropriate enough money for [the hospital’s] maintenance.”
Later in the hearing, Chancellor Lindley chimed in along similar lines. “You must please your patrons or they will not come there,” said the chancellor, noting in passing that “85 percent of the maintenance of that hospital comes out of the pockets of patients.” Concluded Lindley, “We can’t say to [the pay patients] that the law is thus and so; they don’t hear you if you do. They just know that you maintain a hospital and they expect to be served in a way that suits them.”
Lindley also amplified what Wahl had said before him regarding adequate state funding, which would in his estimation make it possible for “the colored boys [to] have equal chances with the white boys,” an outcome, added the chancellor, that he “would like to see.” Said Lindley, “We should have an increased appropriation from the State so that the school could function properly, and so that the hospital would not have to get its main income from pay patients.”
Several members of the Kansas Board of Regents echoed Lindley’s assessment, especially on the need for more funding. “The Board of Regents has asked the Legislature to do something for that school, to make it a real medical school,” testified Charles M. Harger, the Regents’ chair, citing repeated requests for increased appropriations that would allow the construction of additional buildings. “The Board has done its part in asking the Legislature to equip Bell Memorial Hospital so that it might function properly,” concluded Harger, essentially washing his – and the Regents’ – hands of the situation.
Other Regents were similarly ambivalent and also inclined to pass the buck to the legislature. They recognized the problem, but seemed to think the only solution was more state money to erect new segregated facilities.
“I don’t know what can be done,” said Regent B.P. Waggener. “I can only do my best to see that this matter is given attention, and something done to give the colored patients and colored students an even chance with others. They should have a new ward.”
“The ward for Negroes is a disgrace to Kansas,” added Regent Drew McLaughlin, who went on to call the wooden barracks “a fire trap.” But he was not willing to shoulder any responsibility for this state of affairs. “There is no reason for you to blame those at the hospital nor to blame the Board of Regents because every member of the board has striven to have better housing down there and more adequate facilities.”
Blount wouldn’t have any of this. “I think it would be unfair to the state to ask it to appropriate hundreds of thousands of dollars additional to make separate provisions for colored students.” What’s more, he added later in the proceedings, “There is too much talk here about segregation – the law does not provide for that.”
Indeed, as he pointed out toward the end of the hearing, “We are not, as a group, asking for sympathy, just a chance, an opportunity, nothing more and nothing less…We hope that some effort will be made to correct these humiliating, embarrassing situations that exist. We only want the rights that are given us under the laws of Kansas.”
But all this talk of legalities and practicalities, of funding constraints and patient preferences, of civil rights and supposed revenues, may have obscured the most fundamental issue of all. Dean Wahl touched on it briefly in his testimony. “If a white woman was to be examined by a colored student,” he advised, “there would be more than imagination going with that.”
No one pursued this comment, perhaps because its deeper implications were all too well understood. At the time, a typical mindset for many white men was the protection of white womanhood from “violation” by black men. Additionally, a common pretext for lynching black males was their alleged sexual encounters with white females.
Discrimination at the Medical School was the major focus of Blount’s inquiry. But it was hardly the only aspect of KU’s racial segregation policies that were investigated.
Other witnesses at the hearing gave evidence of additional exclusionary customs at the University’s Lawrence campus. Such standard practices included preventing black undergraduates from joining the ROTC, from using the swimming pool, and from participating in intercollegiate and intramural athletics. It also came out that African Americans were “not allowed to have their choice of seats” at University athletic events and were forced to eat lunch in a restricted section of the Kansas Union cafeteria “in the middle of the room, under all the eyes of the public – away from all windows or ventilation…”
Chancellor Lindley did not deny these charges. Instead, he compared the situation at KU to “other state institutions like in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri” and blandly asserted that African American students were “a good deal better off in this state than in most others.”
In a follow-up to the chancellor’s statement, another witness pointed out that if Kansas could look good only in contrast to “Jim Crow” states, it was hardly an accomplishment. African Americans at KU, noted this witness, were “not better off than the [black] students who attend most of the northern universities.”
The one-day hearing, attended by numerous leading members of the local African American community, concluded on a cordial note. Afterwards, Blount told the Kansas City Call, an African American newspaper based on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro area, that he believed the investigation would “have a far-reaching effect.” Blount went on to report that he “was assured that the things complained of will receive the immediate attention of the Board of Regents.”
Blount’s optimism would not be enough to carry the day. Although an editorial in the Call, published on March 9, 1934, noted that “Kansas University has not a legal foot to stand on in its limitation of Negro students who are Kansans,” and continued to cover the story for a while longer, little of immediate consequence seems to have come about. However, these non-results did not deter at least a few African Americans from pursuing their medical studies at KU.
By that time, Donald Sheffield Ferguson, who had already completed a pre-med undergraduate degree at KU, was working his way through the first year of the scientific program at the Medical School. In 1936, Edward Vernon Williams, who had majored in zoology as a KU undergrad and earned excellent grades, would enter this course as well.
Williams would go on to become the first African American to graduate from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1941 – a status he achieved thanks to his recognized academic abilities plus efforts exerted on his behalf by civil rights activists and Kansas Governor Walter Huxman.
Ferguson, by dint of his continuing refusal to accept KU’s exclusionary practices augmented by a threat to take his case to the Kansas Supreme Court, became the second black graduate of the KU School of Medicine, earning his MD in 1942.
Blount left the Kansas legislature after 1936. He continued to practice medicine in Kansas City, Kansas, and was associated with both the Douglass Hospital and the Queen of the World Hospital. In 1958, according to his obituary, he “was awarded citations in honor of his fifty years of service in the field of medicine by both Meharry Medical College and the University of Kansas Medical Center.” He died in 1965.