By Akeya Dickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
The racism was pervasive, Anderson said, but he knew his hard work would pay off.
"It wouldn't be uncommon to walk past white residents who wouldn't even speak to you or look at you," he said of his time at Washington Hospital Center, where he is now senior attending eye surgeon. "I realized that not only was I the first black there, I was the first minority there -- no Chinese, no Hispanic, no Indian."
As a poor growing up in Pittsburgh, Anderson dreamed of becoming a doctor. Rooted in his Seventh-day Adventist values of medical missionary work, Anderson was determined -- much like his colleague and friend Ben Carson, a renowned surgeon -- to make a difference. He jumped at an opportunity to attend a black boarding school in Maryland.
When a white dean came to the school to recruit black students to Washington Missionary College in Takoma Park, Anderson saw a chance to break racial barriers. He was one of six black students to integrate the school, now Columbia Union College. Even so, the dean tried to steer the eager student away from medicine.
"I see you want to be a doctor, but you might want to think about a different major," Anderson recalled the dean telling him.
Anderson said he thought about transferring to Howard and even enrolled, but with the civil rights movement in full stride, he decided to stay at the Takoma Park college and fulfill his integration mission.
"I had to work as a janitor at the administration building" to earn money for tuition, Anderson said. "I slept on the mattress on the floor. They had three blacks to a room, and each room had two beds, and I had the mattress. My second year, I slept on a bench in the chapel, where I was working. I was glad to be able to do it because I knew where I was going."
Anderson became the first black student to go to medical school from the college.
He chose Howard, which proved to be the perfect opportunity to interact with other socially conscious black intellectuals on a college campus that was a hotbed of student protests. One young firebrand was Stokely Carmichael, a student leader who drew Anderson's attention.
"We would bring carloads of white students to Howard's campus to show them that we're just like them," Anderson recalled. "And students from Howard would go with Stokely Carmichael to Glen Echo and Marshall Park to integrate, to do whatever was needed to advance civil rights."
In June 1968, the month Anderson graduated, he was still reeling from King's violent death when another civil rights hero, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated while campaigning for the presidency. Anderson said Kennedy's death heightened the urgency he felt to take advantage of the opportunities that had opened up. "We didn't want to be guilty of not being at the forefront," he said.
At Howard, Anderson had met Beverly, who was completing a master's in mathematics. She would become the wife for whom he had prayed, and the two married after he completed medical school. Beverly Anderson also received a doctorate, and the couple found their dream house, complete with a swimming pool and tennis courts, in Prince George's when a federal legislator who had lost his reelection bid sold them his Tantallon estate.
The Andersons urged other young, black professionals to join them in the county. Today, Tantallon, like Prince George's, is predominantly black.
Anderson said God and his commitment to his faith gave him the strength to endure. He said he strives to embody the spirit of King by mentoring residents in the hospital, students at Howard and children at the Southeast Tennis Center and the two churches he attends.
"We came through at the world's most unique time in history," Anderson said. "We did a lot of crying when we were mistreated, but we were never disillusioned or disheartened."