Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reign of Terror and Racism at University of Kentucky Medical School

Authored by Lachin Hatemi M.D
 Published by

Lexington Kentucky is an interesting city; my adopted hometown; an ever growing college town, full of potential. Surrounded by beautiful and legendary horse farms, it is also home to the 2012 NCAA Basketball
champions: the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky. A team of mostly black college athletes carried the championship cup back to Lexington, an achievement recognized by the entire country and President Obama. Given that the University’s sports teams were not integrated until the late 60’s,
it is worthy of note that of the University’s 8 NCAA basketball championship teams, the 2012 team was the first to have an all African American starting lineup. In the sports arena, UK has seemingly come a long
way when in comes to including African Americans and minorities, and remains a popular destination for black high school athletes.

 Unfortunately, the same degree of inclusion does not exist on the academic side of the University. The numbers of undergraduate and graduate students, professional students, and tenured professors do not come close to matching the diversity of the overall US or state population.

Despite being home to many notable Black Americans and being the location of a great deal of Black American history, Lexington, Kentucky has never been seen as having a reputation of being a hospitable place for minorities. Much of this reputation is rooted in the city’s ties to slavery. The area known as Cheapside in downtown Lexington was once home to the most well known slave auction facility in the south. It was here that African slaves were beaten, sold, and lead off in chains, forever to be separated from parents, siblings, children, brothers and sisters for the sake of the greed and profit of the white aristocracy. It is a horrible legacy, and in many ways its spirit still exists in the area, though in far less apparent ways.

Henry Clay is looked upon with pride in the region as being a great statesman. A high school is named after him, and his home in Lexington is a tourist attraction. Clay’s role in the US congress as being a supposedly
great “peacemaker“ in advocating compromise between the north and south’s debate over slavery is widely trumpeted as being a great achievement. He is considered a hero for helping to stave off the civil war for 15 years – but a hero from whose perspective? For the black slave, Clay’s supposed noble efforts to delay the inevitable war that had to be fought for their freedom meant 15 more years of bondage, hard labor, brutality, rape of women and children, and murder.

The spirit of racism was definitely publicly and historically evident on Lexington’s UK campus for many years. State law forbade African Americans from attending UK until 1947, when Lyman T. Johnson won a lawsuit against UK and was admitted to the school. It would be 20 years later before UK recruited a black athlete. More on that later.

Further evidence of racism at UK his hidden in the names of its buildings. The Chandler Medical Center, the anchor of the medical campus, is named after Governor Happy Chandler. As commissioner of baseball, Chandler approved the inclusion of Jackie Robinson as the first black to play in the major leagues. But Chandler’s pioneering effort of racial inclusion as commissioner was largely offset at UK by his behavior in later years as a board of trustee member, when he consistently used the word “n****r” openly during board meetings and was never admonished or punished for his behavior. On the contrary, he is seen by many as an admired part of Kentucky history, and his use of the “N” word was considered by board members and others as harmless and quaint, and even acceptable, as it was deemed to be the acceptable way of speaking during Chandler’s day.

The legacy of racism relating to UK athletics goes back many years as well.
A residential apartment complex on campus is named after UK football player Greg Page. Coming from the small mining town of Middleborough, KY, Greg was a true star; he broke the racial barriers by being the first black football recruit in UK’s history. Unfortunately, Greg Page never got the chance to play in a game. Kentucky was not ready to permit the integration of its sports program, not even by a native born son, simply because of the color of his skin. Instead of celebrating the arrival of a talented player, Page was in fact targeted for racial discrimination and violence by his teammates. Such was the level of their racial hatred that Page would pay with his life for daring to be a trailblazer. In a football practice session, before playing a single game for UK, his white teammates targeted him mercilessly. They hit him, tackled him, and piled on him with no remorse. In a story that was routinely told and retold by adult and youth alike in Lexington in the years following the incident, Page was deliberately and viciously subjected to one hit after another, his teammates unleashing all of their hatred on him until his body suffered lethal injuries and simply gave out. Greg Page’s neck injuries during that practice session left him paralyzed and comatose.
This all took place in 1967. Page and Nat Northington were the only two blacks on the University of Kentucky football team, the only blacks in all of the Southeastern Conference. Whereas Northington broke the color barrier wearing the Wildcats uniform, Greg Page died 38 days after that practice session beating. Nat Northington, not wishing to suffer the same fate as his teammate, packed his belongings and left UK forever. Though the entire incident amounted to a veritable lynching, no charges were ever filed and
the incident was never investigated. It was instead “white washed” as have been so incidents of racism and hate over the years at UK.

That day, Greg Page was not alone in that football field. Everybody who witnessed the event knew what his teammates were doing to Greg. Coaches, spectators, other players, they all chose to do nothing to stop it.
Everybody who was in that football field that day was guilty, they are all killers of Greg. They were all driven by a spirit of arrogance and racism, and they trusted on and were rewarded by a system that covered it up and refused to investigate.

Today, much has changed at the University Kentucky’s campus, but many things remain the same. It has been 45 years since Greg Page’s death, and despite a mission statement that claims that as Kentucky’s “flagship institution” the University “plays a critical leadership role by promoting diversity and inclusion,” racism and segregation is still alive and widespread on campus. Racism, however, has changed its form, becoming more subtle, more hideous, and more systematic. But then again, for a look at some far more visible signs of prejudice and racism, a quick visit to the campus will suffice in making racism and the lack of ethnic diversity clearly visible to the naked eye.

At the student center, African Americans are employed widespread in food services. There, and in other campus buildings such as the Patterson Office Tower and the Whitehall Classroom Building, the custodial staff is also predominantly black. But check out any of the offices on the 18 floors of Patterson and you will be hard pressed to see a single black person at an information desk, at a secretary’s desk. or in any of the faculties’ offices. At the appropriately named Whitehall Classroom Building, a look into the classrooms reveals that black instructors are virtually non-existent. Are we to believe that blacks only make good food servers and custodians, and athletes, but not good secretaries or receptionists or teachers? Why are there so few blacks in the more prestigious, better paying UK jobs?

When it comes to the leadership of our predominantly black, money making championship basketball team, UK is definitely committed to paying that team’s leader millions of dollars. But for the average black student at UK, one of their mentor’s and leaders was deemed worth far less than our beloved Coach Cal. In the month following the basketball team’s NCAA win, UK’s black students and alumni witnessed the termination of Chester Grundy, a man who had dedicated 30 years to working on behalf of UK’s minority students as an advocate and mentor. As the founder of UK’s Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center, and having brought the popular Spotlight Jazz Series and Roots and Heritage Festival to UK and Lexington, Grundy was a strong figure to the African American community on campus and in the region. UK chose to cite budget cuts in justifying the end of Grundy’s position. Grundy’s termination shows African American students and local
residents that UK really doesn’t care about them — unless they are bringing in millions in revenue by excelling on the basketball court or the football field.

Actions like these by UK which clearly ignore and work against diversity and inclusion are visible to anyone who looks closely, but they still go largely unquestioned and ignored. The status quo, the white aristocracy,
stays in control. Think then how much more racist and discriminatory action is taking place where it is even less visible.

This brings us to another major area of concern that remains hidden from the public — it is the poor enrollment and retention of black students at University of Kentucky Medical School. A significant number of black medical students have either been dismissed or held back a year or two in their education over that last decade. The exodus of black students is so great, it cannot be explained simply by individual student’s failures.

The reign of terror and racism at University of Kentucky Medical School corresponds to the tenure of Dr. Darrell Chester Jennings, who was the dean of Medical Education at University of Kentucky for most of the last decade. During the same period, Dr. Jay Perman was the dean of medical school. Under their leadership, countless black medical students had to end their dreams to become physicians. Dr. Jennings was never reluctant to use his power and authority to misrepresent student records and punish a student by denying access to his grades. Currently, Dr. Jennings is the chairman of Pathology department and Dr. Jay Perman is the president of the University of Maryland. Their actions were never investigated, at least not
until now.

It would not surprise me if UK names a building after Dr. Jennings or Dr. Jay Perman — and unless their actions are thoroughly investigated and exposed, they probably will. But their efforts to keep minorities from
succeeding at the College of Medicine, and the underlying racism that persists in the med school and throughout UK must be exposed. The NAACP is now requesting the demographics and retention rates of black medical students between 2004-2010, as well as overall records to compare to those with students who are allowed to stay in the program. Until the enrollment data becomes fully available to the general public, we will continue to fail to recognize the depth of systematic discrimination at UK.

UK‘s refusal to release the records to the NAACP following the organization’s initial request shows that UK has much to hide. But the time has come for the “white washing“ by the aristocracy at UK and in this region to end. The demographics of this past presidential election shows that America is changing, becoming increasingly a nation of increased ethnic and cultural diversity. The oppressive regimes of discrimination,
and the spirits of racism and arrogance behind them, must be exposed and brought down.

UK must decide where its future lies. Does the university want to remain a part of the old “white” America, the old south, where sometimes overt racism and discrimination still go largely unquestioned, where blacks and minorities are tolerated or promoted as long as they conform to the desires and cultural rules of the white aristocracy? Or do they want to join the new millennium, where inclusion of race, ethnicity and culture is embraced? In other words, do they want to truly live up to their own mission statement, and as Kentucky’s “flagship institution” play “a critical leadership role by promoting diversity and inclusion”?

Time will tell…


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