I had the opportunity to attend a lecture at Meharry Medical College. Meharry is one of the nation’s oldest and largest historically black academic health science centers dedicated to educating physicians, dentists, researchers, and health policy experts.
The President James E.K. Hildreth is relatively new to the college and was the speaker for the lecture series. There was a little time before the address was to begin and someone in the audience asked if he’d give a bit of his personal background. He paused for a moment and then told his amazing story.
He grew up in a small town in Arkansas in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. His father worked in a mill, became seriously ill, and ultimately died because of lack of adequate care that was available for African American people.
Shortly after his father died, Martin Luther King Jr was killed and Dr. Hildreth became incredibly angry. So much so he didn’t speak for three months. He credits him mom for praying him out of his anger and turning it into determination. From that point, Dr. Hildreth went to the library and read everything he could find about medicine and medical programs.
He felt like a person of his background needed the best opportunity to be accepted into medical school. His research indicated Harvard students are accepted into medical school at a high rate – so he built his portfolio to be accepted into Harvard. Eagle Scout, Sunday School teacher, and a litany of other activities in addition to being an exceptional student.
Ultimately he was the first African American from Arkansas to be accepted into Harvard, graduated magna cum laude and began looking for medical schools. His friend thought he should become a Rhodes scholar. The deadline was Nov. 1 and they were having this discussion on Oct. 30. He tells a great story about his friend that worked at the Post Office who stamped/cancelled a manila envelope on Oct. 31, his extensive application packet was dropped in the mail on Nov. 3, and led to him being the first African American from Arkansas selected as a Rhodes Scholar. Subsequently, he graduated from Oxford University with a Ph.D. in Immunology.
Dr. Hildreth’s lecture was good, about how medical care and medical training needs to change for the future. But I’ll never forget this story that almost wasn’t and almost wasn’t told to us.