American Academy of Pediatrics admits racist past, apologizes for denying entry to 2 Black doctors 80 years ago
About 80 years ago in 1939, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had rejected the membership of two Black doctors. The US medical body is now apologizing for its racist attitude against the two doctors and others in a new policy statement.
At the time of their initially rejected applications in 1939, both Dr Alonzo deGrate Smith and Dr Roland Boyd Scott were busy clinicians and well-established leaders in the pediatric academic community as faculty at the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC. But it was only in 1945, 75 years ago, that the AAP admitted them as its first Black members. “In honoring the memory of these two trailblazers and their contributions to pediatrics and the AAP, be it resolved that we, the board of directors of the AAP apologize for the racism that contributed to the inequities that Drs deGrate Smith, Scott, and other pediatricians have endured. (We) commit to a bylaws referendum to explicitly codify that AAP membership does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” says the statement from the Academy’s board of directors.
Back then, while the AAP bylaws did not explicitly prohibit physicians of color from membership, and Drs deGrate Smith and Scott were finally admitted in 1945, “it is clear that the AAP executive board struggled with unbiased consideration of their applications,” says the group.
The Academy says that as it continues to evolve its “equity agenda,” it is critical that the “tortuous experiences of Drs deGrate Smith and Scott on their pathway to AAP membership” be acknowledged and reckoned with. “In the US, there is a tendency to be ahistorical when it comes to race. The lack of acknowledgment, or worse, the intentional whitewashing of history and the longitudinal relationship of 400 years of oppression on the present-day expression of racism is not uncommon. As the AAP turns the corner toward the 2030 centennial anniversary of its founding, we cannot do so without authentically acknowledging, owning, and reconciling past discriminatory transgressions like the shameful gauntlet to membership experienced by Drs Alonzo deGrate Smith and Roland Boyd Scott,” writes AAP.
The statement quotes excerpts directly from transcripts of AAP’s executive board meetings in November 1939, November 1944, and June 1945, which it says are “painful to read.” The verbatim dialogue and proceedings highlight the racist attitudes and beliefs from which early AAP leaders were clearly not immune, it emphasizes.
“(Region I Chairman) then presented the application of Dr Alfred (sic) deGrate Smith. Motion made by (Region I Chairman) that this application not be accepted and that a letter be sent to his sponsor outlining the educational advancements being outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics for negro physicians; motion seconded by (Region I Associate Chairman) and carried,” says the November 1939 excerpt. It adds, “(Region III Chairman) moved that all of these (Region III) applications, with the exception of Dr Scott, be accepted into membership; motion duly seconded and carried. Motion made by (Region I Chairman) that the same action be taken on Dr Scott as had been taken on Dr Smith; motion seconded and carried.”
A November 1944 excerpt says, “I know Smith and he is a very nice fellow. Scott has for a year or two attended the Sunday morning clinical conferences at Children’s Hospital. He has taken part in the discussion of cases at Freedman’s Hospital. I think the local men in Washington would like to have something to say about men taken into the Academy from that particular location. I think they would rather resent an effort being made to put these men in. I would like to hear what (Region II Chairman) has to say.” The passage from the 1944 meeting goes on to say, “We allow negroes to come to our meeting and we fix a separate place for them to sit. They do not become members. If they became members they would want to come and eat with you at the table. You cannot hold them down.”
Another passage published from the June 1945 meeting of the Academy’s executive board sheds further light on the racist attitudes of some of its leaders back then. “We talked with them for about a half-hour and they conducted themselves as gentlemen. They said their only interest in wishing to join the Academy was for educational purposes. They said they would not attend any meetings held South of the Mason and Dixon line. They would attend meetings in other parts of the country, but under no circumstances enter into the social side for the reason that they did not want to get hurt themselves,” it reads.
The minutes further say, “I think the problem is of much more concern to us than it needs to be. In the first place, we have a definite responsibility to these negro representatives and to the negro population of the country. The only trouble is the social implication. The burden lies much heavier upon Smith and Scott than upon us. As the President (of the Academy) says, we have the authority to say who will not be admitted. In the event that either of these men transgress the social lines, they completely stop the advancement of the n***o.”
The Academy says that embracing racial and ethnic socialization is critical for all children and families as well as for the pediatricians who care for them. “Healing starts at home with truth, reckoning, and honest reconciliation. The AAP is proud to transparently acknowledge, proud to publicly reconcile, and proud to continue to lead on behalf of the best interests of children, adolescents, and young adults and the people who care for them,” concludes the statement.