Living the Legacy 40 Years Later
Thursday, May 29, 2008
While bereaved rioters razed the District's U Street corridor after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Ronald Anderson was preparing for his graduation from Howard University's medical school a few blocks away.
The news of King's death left the young, black doctor more determined to walk boldly through doors that King and the civil rights movement had pried open. Like many in his class, Anderson, an ophthalmologist, would become the first African American hired for many of the jobs he had throughout his medical career.
Anderson and his wife, Beverly, a longtime university professor and former administrator, also became trailblazers in Prince George's County, where they were the first black family to move into the exclusive Tantallon subdivision in Fort Washington, in 1973. They were part of the early tide of black professionals flowing from the District into the then-predominantly white suburb, beginning the demographic transformation of Prince George's into one of the nation's wealthiest, best-educated, predominantly black jurisdictions.
When Anderson joined his medical school classmates this month for their 40th reunion at a D.C. hotel, he recalled the impact of that momentous year, 1968, on his life.
"That was a pivotal point in civil rights history that changed things for young, black doctors," Anderson said during a speech at the reunion dinner, before handing over a donation he had collected from classmates for the university's medical alumni association. "Our class graduated nine ophthalmologists, and that number was unheard of at any university, especially a black one."
Clarence McRipley Jr., a classmate of Anderson's who practices internal medicine in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said his daughter was born a month earlier than expected in 1968, when his wife went into labor after hearing the news of King's death. King's legacy has had a lasting impact on the class, McRipley said.
"We decided we were going to make something of ourselves," he said. "Most of our class practices in the inner city, and that's because we learned that you're never too big to reach back to the inner city and give back."
For Anderson, who had wanted to be an obstetrician-gynecologist, life changed direction the day King died. "That very evening, I realized I needed to follow his creed to make a difference and go into a specialty that didn't have many blacks," Anderson said. "At that point, there may have been 15 black ophthalmologists in the world."
Anderson was drafted in 1972 during the Vietnam War and served two years as a major at the Pentagon, where he was the agency's first black surgeon.
"Within the first couple of weeks, I got to operate on General [Creighton W.] Abrams, who was chief of staff of the Army, which was a real privilege because he was the top man in the world," Anderson said.
When Anderson completed his two years of service, he was recruited to Washington Hospital Center by Melvin Alper, then the chairman of ophthalmology at the center and at George Washington University Hospital. Only a few centers were training black doctors, and ophthalmology was an especially tough specialty to enter because the residents chosen at most hospitals tended to have family ties in the field, Anderson said.
"I was the first black surgeon to operate out of several hospitals here in Washington, D.C.," Anderson said.