“Wait a minute,” Gullattee told him. “Before you do all that, we need to get to the root of why you need to rob me.”
She persuaded the man to go to Howard University Hospital and seek out psychiatric treatment, said her daughter, Deborjha Blackwell.
Gullattee, a pioneering psychiatrist and devoted civil rights activist, would become one of the nation’s most respected experts on substance abuse. As the country waged a war on drugs, Gullattee reached out to the most vulnerable — the crack addicts, the AIDS patients, the sex workers — and treated them like family.
On April 30, after half a century of service at Howard University and in the nation’s capital, Gullattee died after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, her family said. She was 91.
Before her death, Gullattee was the oldest faculty member at Howard University, where she spent a career serving as an associate professor of psychiatry and as director of the Howard University Institute on Substance Abuse and Addiction.
She was one of the first people to lay a brick at the groundbreaking for Howard University Hospital. She received appointments from Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to serve on several White House committees. And in the early 1980s, she served as administrator of the District’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
But to her family, her community at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, and to generations of her patients and students, she was simply “Mimi,” or “Dr. G.”
Gullattee was born and raised in Detroit, where her family had moved from Georgia during the Great Migration. Neither of her parents made it to high school, and her father worked at a Chrysler plant as a stoker in the furnaces. But Gullattee’s parents were determined that their children would get a good education, and her mother — who could barely read — took night classes to help her children with their homework, according to Blackwell.
Gullattee became the first black girl to be named senior graduating class president at her high school in Detroit, according to a 1946 article in the Detroit Free Press.
She would go on to study zoology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she sat as one of the few black women in lecture classes where instructors discussed racist theories about differences in skull sizes between black and white people, and how it affected their learning abilities, Blackwell said.
“Do what you have to do to get through the course and get the grade,” Gullattee would later tell her daughter, Blackwell recalled. “You can respond to it afterwards.”
It was there, while waiting at a bus stop near the UC Santa Barbara campus, that she would meet the man who would become her husband of 41 years, a fellow student named Latinee Gullattee.
In the years that followed, they would move together to the District, then briefly to the South, where her husband was pursuing a teaching job. She had been active in the NAACP since high school and had picketed outside stores in Santa Barbara because they refused to hire black employees in non-menial jobs. But it was in the South that Gullattee experienced Jim Crow laws firsthand.
“I saw that no matter what we talked about or no matter what we did,” she later said in an interview, “unless we became sophisticated and educated to the point that we could devise methods of change that would not in any way constantly threaten the lives of those who would be the ones to map out strategy, we were never going to be able to survive.”
She lasted six months in the South before moving back to California, Blackwell said. Then, in 1960, she and her husband and daughter drove across the country in their 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air with a piece of paper in Gullattee’s hand: an acceptance letter from the Howard University College of Medicine.
In the decades that followed, Gullattee’s service to Howard University was “unparalleled,” Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick wrote in a letter after her death. “She played a significant role in the education and training of literally thousands of physicians, including a significant percentage of the African American physicians practicing in this country.”
In the late 1980s, Gullattee also made national headlines when she became a central figure in one of several drug controversies surrounding then-Mayor Marion Barry. News broke that Gullattee had allegedly told police that Barry had suffered a cocaine overdose when he was admitted to Howard University Hospital in September 1983. She denied she made the allegations, felt betrayed by the way the incident was handled and was pained by the constant news coverage, Blackwell said.
In a Washington Post article in December 1989, Gullattee was described as “a highly opinionated, committed advocate of civil rights.”
“Many people who are members of my church owe their sobriety to the work she’s done,” the Rev. Willie Wilson, who was then Gullattee’s pastor at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, told The Post at the time.
Seemingly every time her children or grandchildren accompanied her to church, or on errands around town, they would run into someone who would shout out “Dr. G!” and tell her about a time she had helped them, said her grandson, Jabari Ashanti.
One time, while they were at a thrift store on Georgia Avenue, a cabdriver pulled up to them, Ashanti recalled.
“Dr. Gullattee, you don’t remember me, but 30 years ago I was on that stuff, and you came and got me and told me that God had more plans for me,” the cabdriver told her, Ashanti recalled. “You had made sure I had gotten in a program. I’ve been clean for 25 years, and I just want to say thank you.”
It wasn’t until fairly recently that many of her grandchildren and younger relatives learned about Gullattee’s lasting impact on the District. To them, she was the Mimi who loved gospel music and nature and dancing.
Even in recent years, she kept dancing, said her youngest daughter, Aishaetu Gullattee, whom Gullattee adopted from a former patient. On Gullattee’s 90th birthday, Aishaetu took a video of her booty-shaking to a song for a “shoot challenge.”
“I knew what to say to trigger her to say something funny, and she would always go for it,” Aishaetu Gullattee said. “I’d be like, ‘Holla back, girl,” and she’d be like, ‘Holla back?’ ”
In recent weeks, Gullattee’s health had begun to deteriorate. After suffering a stroke in February, she was hospitalized at Howard University Hospital for weeks, before she was transferred to a rehabilitation facility, where she ended up testing positive for the coronavirus.
Before the pandemic restricted visitors to the hospital, at least 50 people stopped by her room to share stories about times when “she reached into their life and saved it,” Ashanti said.
One doctor recalled a time when, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, she was caring for an AIDS patient who was nearing the end of her life. The doctor walked into the hospital room to see Gullattee’s arms wrapped around the patient.
“My grandmother was cradling the lady, sores and everything,” Ashanti said, “cradling her and kissing her on her forehead and saying it was okay.”