In 1998, children’s songwriter Tom Chapin wrote a lovely song, “My town is a salad bowl,” a lovely metaphor for the U.S., — arguably better than the weary “melting pot” metaphor that always begged to be revised because America is not fondue or gravy — If our towns are salad bowls, it’s possible to imagine plucking out one part of the mix and admiring its contribution to the overall flavor. It’s something like taking a month to understand the history and contribution of the people who contribute to our nation. But it’s more than a mere appreciation. It is a necessary act for survival and thriving.
Dr. C.G. Woodson, the man who founded Black History Week that turned into Black History Month, noted that “history is the prophet looking backward” and that “not to know what once’s race has done in former times is to continue always as a child. ‘If no use were made of the labor of past ages,’ it has been said, ‘the world remains always in the infancy of knowledge.’” Woodson wrote on, “If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible fact in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Thus, Black History Month is a dedicated period to promote history that is (or should be) fully integrated in our life-long education, one that affirms the right of people to thrive here in the U.S.
This year’s Black History Month recognition begins on a somewhat mournful note with the passing of the League of Women Voters president, who died suddenly Jan. 28. Dr. Deborah Ann Turner was an incredible woman with a list of accomplishments that speak to her character and example — a mother, the first African-American woman certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a lawyer and policy maker and finally national president of the LWV.
Turner told her children to be lifelong learners and to reach out to other cultures, find an interest and pursue that interest. Notably, that complements the efforts of various history months.
According to her hometown newspaper, the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette, as a child Turner’s father told her “be a ditch digger or be a doctor, but whatever you do, be the best ditch digger or best doctor.” Her path to OB/GYN and her brother’s career as a highway construction engineer indicated their sincerity in heeding their father’s advice.
Turner was named to the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013 because of her relentless interest in bringing her best to the world. Her specialty — gynecologic oncology, or gynecological cancer care — inspired her to impact health policy. She pursued a Juris Doctorate (law degree) to impact healthcare policy and increase equity through activism. In 2010, the Iowa League of Women Voters made her their president and she became national president in 2020.
Also blazing a trail in medicine is Dr. Irene Canady, the first African American neurosurgeon. Canady’s father was a dentist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Her grandmother was professor at Lane College in Tennessee who studied aptitude testing. When she took a test for her grandmother’s research, “a funny thing happened.” She’d done abnormally well, uncovering a tragic deception.
“That’s how it came to light that my teacher had been lying about my test scores in school. She’d been switching them with a white girl in my class. And just like that, it turned out I wasn’t so average after all,” Canady told the University of Michigan, her alma mater. Not that anyone in her family told her. She skipped the third grade, which motivated her and in college she learned this secret and that her teacher had been fired on account of it.
In high school, Canady set her heart on being a mathematician, so she applied to MIT, not knowing the school would block her acceptance, so she considered applying to a school closer to home. Having competed with her equally proficient brother, her parents told her to apply somewhere other than the University of Michigan to allow him to thrive. Undeterred, and likely wise enough to realize her brother would thrive either way, she took matters in her own hand and applied anyway. Upon being accepted, she jumped into the debate team.
Early on, Canady discovered math was not her forte. While she explored her next steps, she took a job as a city reporter for The Michigan Daily, moving on to the editorial page. A bit lost on her next steps, she foundered until her brother mentioned a scholarship program in medicine for minority students. Little did she know that the work ethic and reputation she built at The Daily and through the debate team boosted her reputation and helped her get into med school.
Upon finishing med school, she was obsessed with neurosurgery, but the chair of the Michigan program found a way to insinuate she wasn’t welcome “in his program.” He sat her down and read off a long list of students he’d washed out of the program. In spite of many people asking, “Is this really what you want to do?” Yes, it was. Canady persisted in the face of resistance, was not to be frightened by intimidating people, and she trusted her knowledge and ability.
In the moment, Canady didn’t realize the broader impact of her personal accomplishment, but reflecting later, she told NBC Today, “One, it was important for the children, who would no longer see neurosurgery as yet another world that they couldn’t belong to. That’s the side everybody appreciates. And that was equally important in changing society’s expectations. So while being first wasn’t important to me, it was important for many others.”
Dr. Canady served as the chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 until her retirement in June 2001.
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Clarification: Diamond Justus, who was featured in last week’s column, was the recent education director for the Montgomery Health Department. She has since moved on to the Youth Services Bureau.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.