Black Psychiatrists in Iowa

It’s funny how a newspaper article can set off a series of remembrances. I read the Psychiatric News article, “Building Community in Professional Organizations: The APA and BPA,” written by Ezra E.H. Griffith, M.D. (published on line April 30, 2019).

The article is about how Black psychiatrists have struggled to become a part of mainstream psychiatry, eventually forming the separate organization Black Psychiatrists of America (BPA) in 1969.

Nowadays it’s difficult to imagine that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) discriminated against Blacks. As an aside, I’m noticing how I’m not using the usual term “African American” in this post. Instead, I’m using the term “Black,” which is what Dr. Griffith did.

This reminds me of a book review I wrote for the American Journal of Psychiatry almost 20 years ago (Amos, J. (2000). Being Black in America Today: A multi perspective review of the problem. Am J Psychiatry, 157(5), 845-846.).

The book was written by Norman Q Brill, M.D. It reminded me of my experience at Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University, a private school, historically with largely Black enrollment) in Austin, Texas back in the 1970s. I wrote:

“Dr. Brill’s appraisal of many black leaders in chapters such as “Black Leaders in the Black Movement” and “Black Anti-Semitism” may be refreshingly frank in the opinion of some. He tailors his prose so as not to denounce openly those whom many would describe as demagogues. At the same time, it is apparent that his underlying message is that a substantial number of them are not only out of touch with mainstream black America but may even mislead black people into adopting ideological positions that impede rather than foster progress. Dr. Brill’s description of the issue reminded me of my own experience with this phenomenon as a freshman in the mid-1970s at a college of predominantly black enrollment in the southern United States. A guest lecturer (who, as I recall, had also written a book about being black in America) told us that the white man would never allow a black man to be a man in America. He had only three choices: he could be a clown, an athlete, or a noble savage. These corresponded to the prominent and often stereotyped roles that blacks typically held in entertainment, sports, and black churches.” 

I was taken aback by the speaker’s judgment and asked him what my choice should then be. He was equally taken aback, I suspect. He advised me to be a clown. I also remember being aware of why my department asked me to write the review. That leads me to reflect on the upcoming celebration of the 100 Year Anniversary of the Department of Psychiatry where I’ve been a faculty member. It’s in November 2019.

If you read through the web page describing the history of the department, you won’t find anything about Black psychiatrists. In fact, I could be the only Black psychiatrist who has ever been a faculty member here at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

And if you look at The 2018 Greater Iowa African American Resource Guide available on the web, you’ll find only one other psychiatrist listed other than me.

On the other hand, historically, some Blacks have done well in Iowa. George Washington Carver became a faculty member at Iowa State University in the 1890s. I graduated from Iowa State in the 1980s. After World War II, Black Iowans integrated The University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Drake dormitories in 1946. Dr. Philip Hubbard was the University of Iowa’s first Black vice president.

I am not a clown, an athlete, or a noble savage. I am a man.

Addendum: I read the facts about George Washington Carver and Dr. Philip Hubbard on an Iowa Public TV web page. However, to my dismay the site is marked “Not secure” by Google. The source of the information there is from a respectable reference:

Silag, B. (2001). Outside in: African-American history in Iowa, 1838-2000. Des Moines: State Historical Society of Iowa.

Content information:

“A distinguished group of 36 writers (for no pay or royalties), including community leaders as well as academic historians, has created Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000, a book certain to become the standard work on the African-American experience in Iowa. Each of the book’s 20 chapters focuses on a particular aspect of that experience–legal and political rights, business and professional leadership, clubs and community organizations, churches and schools, and more–from Iowa’s territorial days to the present. Hundreds of photographs (gathered from family albums and scrapbooks, as well as historical archives) accompany the text, which is documented with extensive references. A detailed index is also included. Three themes tie together the enormous amount of historical information contained in Outside In: *The struggle of black Iowans to claim their rights as citizens; *The pursuit of individual opportunity in Iowa’s evolving economy over the years; and *The creation of community institutions to help families and individuals through good times and bad. Outside In provides the big picture and the details of this proud story of African-American initiative in Iowa, from the groundbreaking legal victories of pioneer Alexander Clark up through the present day political triumphs of Preston Daniels and LaMetta Wynn.” –Dust Cover, Front flap. Outside In is the result of a collective effort spanning five years. It is the first in-depth study of the black experience in Iowa in a half-century, and is expected to stand as the definitive work in its field for some time to come. While much of the book’s contents recall hard-fought struggles against prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Outside In also points to proud traditions of understanding and cooperation among black and white Iowans, traditions that go back to before the Civil War and remain vital to this day. –Dust Cover, Back flap.

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