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The 1918 ban of Black medical students: Addressing our past discrimination to promote diversity in the future

Last fall, my understanding of the history of the Queen’s School of Medicine changed when I learned that, in 1918, we had put in place a policy to formally ban Black students. This policy was approved in a motion by the Queen’s Senate, and it was enforced until 1965.

I learned about this ban when Edward Thomas, a PhD candidate at Queen’s, presented his research on the topic to the Queen’s Senate and informed us that the motion that had set the ban in place had never been officially repealed. He asked us to formally rescind the motion, which we did during the October meeting of the Senate. 

According to Mr. Thomas, this ban was put in place in order to be in line with the discriminatory policies favoured at the time by the American Medical Association (AMA), the organization that ranked medical schools in North America.  While the AMA had no control over the policies of Canadian medical schools, the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation consulted its rankings when they made decisions about whether or not to provide funding to medical schools. It seems, then, that the leaders of the Queen’s School of Medicine decided to ban Black students in order to receive a higher ranking from the AMA and thus receive more funding.

As a result of this ban, at least two Black students at Queen’s had their medical careers ended. Eight Black students resisted the policy and remained at the university, but they were subjected to racism and mockery from their peers.

After putting the ban in place, Queen’s repeatedly refused to consider the applications of Black students until 1965.

From the beginning, university leadership was not forthright about their reasons for putting the ban in place. In 1918, university leaders said that the school needed to ban Black students because veterans of the First World War who had returned to Kingston refused to be seen by them. The Black students themselves, however, claimed that they were not aware of any instances of such refusal.

It seems, then, that the university administration gave this explanation in order to disguise the more likely reason that the ban was being instated as part of their efforts to receive funding from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. Moreover, at the time, the School of Medicine claimed that Queen’s would make arrangements that would enable current Black students to transfer easily to other schools of medicine, such as Dalhousie. But there is no evidence that such arrangements were ever made.

This lack of transparency continued in later years, as university leadership misrepresented the ban or failed to hold Queen’s accountable for its actions. In 1978, for instance, the family of Ethelbert Bartholomew – an upper-year student whose medical career was suddenly ended by the policy in 1918 – asked the university why Ethelbert had been expelled from Queen’s in his fourth year, when he was in good standing. In response, university leadership simply reiterated the suggestion that Ethelbert’s expulsion would have been due to the prejudices of Kingston veterans, and they did not take the opportunity to apologize for the harm that the ban had done to Ethelbert.

University leaders also misrepresented the history of the ban on at least three other occasions in 1964, 1986, and 1988. In these instances, Queen’s leaders would make false claims that the ban had ended earlier than it had or that all students originally affected by it had successfully transferred elsewhere.

It would be hard to put into words how taken aback I was to learn about this history. This policy was so undeniably unjust, and I knew that formally rescinding the motion had to be only the beginning of the process of making amends for this wrong.

Knowing that we needed to do more, I formed a commission of faculty, students, and staff from Queen’s in order to discuss what concrete steps we can take to address this historical injustice.

Formal Letter of Apology to Black Medical Students - PDF
Formal letter of apology

As a first step, Principal Daniel Woolf and I will be publicly apologizing for the policy tomorrow – Tuesday, April 16th –  at this month’s meeting of the Queen’s Senate.

I am also pleased to say that Daniel Bartholomew, the son of Ethelbert Bartholomew, will be travelling to Kingston to be present at this public apology.

Going forward, the commission has also agreed to take a range of actions to address our past discrimination and promote diversity at our institution. We will send personal letters of apology to family members of the individuals who were affected by the ban. We will provide greater focus on inclusivity and diversity in our curriculum. We have initiated an admission award for Black medical students that will be implemented for the incoming class. We will create an exhibit addressing the ban that will be displayed in the atrium of the new medical building. In 2020, we will host a symposium that will focus on the history of the ban and the future of diversity in the medical profession. And we will implement a mentorship program for Black students in the School of Medicine.

As an institution, we can never undo the harm that we caused to generations of Black students, and we have to accept that our actions contributed to the inequities in the medical profession that still exist today. I hope, though, that the steps we are taking now will move the School of Medicine in the direction of greater inclusivity, diversity and equity.

This is a moment of reckoning for Queen’s, but it is also an opportunity to affirm our dedication to the principles of equality in the School of Medicine.

If you have any thoughts on how we can best take action to address this wrong from our past or help strengthen our commitment to equity in the present, please share them in the comments below. Or better yet, please stop by the Macklem House: my door is always open.

 

--Richard  

 

Update

Principal Woolf and I signed the letter on April 16, with Daniel Bartholomew in attendance. We both gave remarks, as did Stephanie Simpson, the Associate Vice Principal of Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion at Queen's. A recording of the apology is now available. You can watch the embedded video above or click on the link. 

Above, you can find a copy of the signed letter.

I'm sharing some pictures of the event below.

 

Principal Woolf and Dean Reznick signing letter of apology
Principal Woolf and I signing letter of apology.
Dean Reznick presenting on the work of the Commission on Black Medical Students
Reading from the letter of apology.

 

Edward Thomas and Daniel Bartholomew
Edward Thomas (third from left) and Daniel Bartholomew (seated)

 

Jim Nugent Meds '71

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 14:50

Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this racist policy. Has Queens investigated its other faculties or the university as a whole for evidence of historical racism or even present day racism?

Jim Nugent Meds '71

Thank you for your comment, Jim, and for your question. Recently, Queen's has been very active in examining racism, diversity, and inclusion on campus. The Principal even created a committee to explore these issues. You can read more about that committee and the progress that has been made in working toward its recommendations here: https://www.queensu.ca/inclusive/initiatives/picrdi. All of us at Queen's take this work very seriously and are committed to making Queen's more diverse, inclusive, and equitable for everyone.

 

Richard Reznick

John Barks, Meds '80

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 17:52

Lack of diversity was obvious when I began Med School at Queen's in 1976; it never occurred to me that it would have been formalized in the way Mr. Thomas uncovered. Besides the fact that less than 1/3 of our classmates were women, we had no classmates who appeared to be of non-European ancestry. I was a Queen's undergrad; classmates of non-European ancestry who were at least as well qualified as me were admitted to other Med Schools, not Queen's. They were not surprised; I did not know what to say at the time. Thank you for addressing this, so that we might learn from the past and do better in the future.
John Barks, Meds '80

John Barks, Meds '80

Thank you for your comment, John, and for sharing your story on the blog. As you say, my sincere hope is that by addressing this troubling history we can learn from our failures and make Queen's a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable place in the future. 

Richard Reznick

Allen Fletcher, Queens Meds '69; Faculty, Queens Health Sciences, Dept. of Pathology, !974- 2002.

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 20:17

The only words that come to mind, having read your blog, are a very heartfelt THANK YOU!!!

Allen Fletcher, Queens Meds '69; Faculty, Queens Health Sciences, Dept. of Pathology, !974- 2002.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Tom. This history is indeed a sad episode in Queen's past. It is too bad that Queen's did not learn from Robert Sutherland's example. But perhaps it is fitting that today's apology took place in Robert Sutherland Hall, which is named after him. 

Richard Reznick

Dr Kate Rocklein Kemplin, NSc 2001

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 23:05

I was always proud that Queen’s graduated women physicians in the 1800s but am appalled that we (as an historical body of Queen’s health sciences alums) were responsible for racial discrimination. Thank you for the sensitivity and proactive response, which I hope will continue.

Dr Kate Rocklein Kemplin, NSc 2001

Thank you for your thoughts and your encouragement, Kate. We will absolutely continue to be proactive. Yesterday's apology was important, but it is only the first of many steps. 

Richard Reznick

Kirt von Daacke

Thu, 04/18/2019 - 20:49

Honored that you and your institution have decided to come to terms with a difficult past. We hope you will consider joining Universities Studying Slavery (USS), a consortium of schools in several countries with programs of truth-telling about slavery and racism in the institutional past. You can learn more about both the consortium and all the work at the University of Virginia’s President’s Commission on Slavery and the University website at http://Slavery.virginia.edu Two other Canadian schools are already members, we’d love to have your team as part of the conversation. I can be reached directly at kv2h@virginia.edu.

Kirt von Daacke

I am happy to inform Kirt von Daacke that at least one current member of the Queen's Faculty of Medicine team has gone into the slavery issue in some depth (see: "The relative roles of politics and science: William Bateson, black slavery, eugenics and speciation." Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2783480 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2783480). In the present case one can note that by 1918 the genetic basis of medicine was clearly established so, of all the faculties at Queen's, the Faculty of Medicine might have been best informed on the matter. One cannot help wonder whether the fateful decision was made administratively without any input from those engaged in medical teaching. It would be interesting to check Queen's archives to review the contemporary minutes of the Faculty of Medicine Board meeting, to see if there was any debate.

Donald Forsdyke

Brooke Saunders

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:57

I think starting an entrance scholarship for incoming black medical students to help defray some of the costs of first year medical school, which as I'm sure we all know are rising to astronomical proportions, would be a good way of starting to redress some of the institutionalized harm we as an institution have done and to help promote diversity in future classes. As a Qmed 2012 graduate, I am sorry to say that our class still only had one black student out of 100. There is still a long way to go for Queen's to truly promote diversity in the profession.

Brooke Saunders

Thank you for commenting, Brooke. I certainly hope that the admission award has the positive effect you're describing. We definitely have work to do, but I hope with our actions we are moving in the right direction.

Richard Reznick

Drew Davies, Meds 88

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 16:56

I echo the comments of my classmate Tom Fiala. Yes, very disappointing to know of this shameful aspect of the history of Queen's, but thank you for ending our ignorance of this matter.
"University leaders also misrepresented the history of the ban on at least three other occasions in 1964, 1986, and 1988."
Are you at liberty to be specific about who these University leaders were and how exactly they misrepresented the ban? As I was a Queen's student in both 1986 & 1988, it would certainly change my feelings and recollections of such people.

Drew Davies, Meds 88

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