For nearly 40 years, the Brown-Tougaloo Partnership has been tackling medicine’s stubborn racial divide.
In any telling of the civil rights history of Mississippi, Tougaloo College looms large. Once a slave plantation, the campus became a haven for activists and an important stop for the movement’s leaders, from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Students, faculty, and staff led demonstrations and sit-ins, most famously at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Jackson, and hosted the Freedom Riders in their successful bid to integrate the city’s bus station.
One of the smallest of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, Tougaloo has long played a disproportionately large role in the undergraduate education of the state’s black professionals. Founded in 1869 by missionaries to educate freed slaves, the private liberal arts school produces more than 35 percent of Mississippi’s African American attorneys and educators and more than 40 percent of its physicians and dentists. Two-thirds of its graduates go on to earn higher degrees; it’s one of the top schools in the US for number of alumni with doctorates in engineering and science.
To stroll across the Tougaloo campus— on a muggy July day in Mississippi, one can only stroll—is to trace a path through this history: among majestic oaks, draped with Spanish moss; past Woodworth Chapel, the college’s geographic and spiritual center; the Italianate mansion where the plantation owner once lived; and Coleman Library, which houses the Mississippi Civil Rights Collection. And just beyond stands Sarah A. Dickey Hall, an unassuming, one-story brick structure, in front of which dozens of high school students now swarm, on break from the summer programs that annually draw African American kids from across the state to enhance their science and math skills and learn about health-related careers. Among them, as there are every year, are future graduates of Tougaloo, and of Alpert Medical School.
“That summer was a mind-altering experience,” says Galen Henderson MD’93, a native of tiny Tunica, MS, who attended the program in 1984. His teachers included graduate and medical students from elite schools across the country, he says. “I had never been around such academically successful people in my life.” After learning about Tougaloo’s legacy of producing African American MDs and PhDs, he adds, “I wanted to be part of that history.”
With that wish, Henderson was poised to become part of another history. A partnership between Tougaloo and Brown to facilitate academic and cultural exchanges—which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year—had been expanded to include early admission to the Medical School; one or two Tougaloo sophomores were accepted each year since the program began, in 1976. The pathway made possible the fledgling med school’s commitment to grow the number of underrepresented minorities with medical degrees; its students at that time were mostly Brown undergraduate alumni, mostly Northerners, and mostly white.
“We were not exactly overwhelming people with our representation of black students,” says Levi Adams, MS, who retired in 1995 as the University’s vice president of government affairs. In the 1970s, when Adams was associate vice president of biology and medicine, he worked with Stanley Aronson, MD, the med school’s founding dean, to develop the Early Identification Program (EIP). Recalling that only one African American graduated from the Medical School in 1976, Adams says, “With one or two Tougaloo students per class, we tripled the number of black students.”
The partnership with Tougaloo had a ripple effect, Adams says, as “word got around to black students at other schools that Brown is an accepting place.” That acceptance benefited everyone at Brown. “On committees, I could listen to what white students said to know they were impacted by black students,” he says. “They didn’t let their biases get in the way.” (Many Tougaloo alums continue to shape the University long after earning their MDs, including Henderson, a trustee emeritus of the Corporation and past president of the Brown Medical Alumni Association, and Emma Simmons MD’91 MPH’04, who served as assistant dean of minority medical affairs.)