Albert Wheeler’s pursuit of black equality at the U of M and Ann Arbor is reflected decades later
Hear a profile of former U of M professor and Ann Arbor Mayor Albert Wheeler. In addition, Dr. Adrianne Haggins explains the challenges black medical students and doctors face today.
This story is part of a Michigan radio series for Black History Month about Black Michiganders who made contributions to science and medicine.
Albert Wheeler understood that blacks need access to quality education in order to be successful in science and medicine.
Originally from Missouri, Wheeler came to Ann Arbor in 1937 to do his PhD. at the University of Michigan. Some of his mentors had asked him to attend medical school. Wheeler felt more suited to public health.
“I just haven’t seen myself billed to people for this type of service,” he said in a 1987 interview with the Historica Critica group, archived in the Bentley Historical Library by U of M. “And so I decided that I would like to go into public health because it was more preventive than curative medicine.”
Pushing for change
For more than 50 years after that, Wheeler pushed. As a graduate student, he sat through insults and insults, including the time he received grade papers, but he was not allowed to enter a laboratory where white students were allowed to work and teach. He also pushed for the career opportunities he had earned as a researcher at U of M, and later as the first African American to hold a tenure-track faculty position there. He taught microbiology and immunology and his research focused on sexually transmitted diseases.
Wheeler said others viewed him as “controversial”.
“I thought I was working for what I’m entitled to as a person. And things are so bad about how attitudes work that you have to do something,” he said. “You couldn’t just sit on your fanny and say, ‘Oh please, people and girls, accept me as a person.’ You had to fight like hell for it. But I paid for it. “
Wheeler paid, among other things, with long delays in promotions, which often came much faster for white professors.
During his nearly 30 years on the faculty, Wheeler also worked to diversify the staff and student body at U of M Medical School.
Wheeler’s daughter, former Michigan state lawmaker Alma Wheeler Smith, says her father also helped African Americans get opportunities in other parts of the university.
“I think my dad always thought it was important for kids to see people who look like them in various jobs,” Wheeler Smith told Michigan Radio. “It was important to have a black person in a role who they were told they couldn’t get because they were lying to the myth.”
Yesterday’s challenges, today’s reality
Wheeler died in 1994, but if he were alive today he would likely be troubled by statistics showing that only 5% of doctors in the US today are black, while black Americans make up about 13% of the population.
And black medical students and doctors can still face bias and overt racism in their work.
Dr. Adrianne Haggins is an Emergency Doctor and Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at U of M Medical School. Part of her research focuses on diversifying health care workers and enhancing the experience for underrepresented groups in medical school and later in their careers.
Haggins is African American and has been with the university since 2010. She said her experiences range from patients staring at her in surprise when she walks into a room and signs up as a doctor, to much worse.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had a few encounters where the patient openly urged me to leave and used explosives related to my race to reiterate that they didn’t want to include me in the care,” Haggins said.
“At some point I was an intern and the attending physician really didn’t know what to say [to the patient]. And it was frustrating because you want to get up and say, “No, I’m part of the team. We don’t tolerate that kind of language here. ‘But then when you look for your co-workers to support you, you can’t find that. You feel somehow disempowered in these moments and only have to take care of it internally and keep working. “
Change of culture in medical schools
In an article she wrote for Academic Medicine magazine, “Seen, Heard, and Be Appreciated,” Haggins cited research that found some senior academic doctors reluctant to mention the breed while caring for minority students. But African American residents said they wanted to make their racial identity part of their professional role.
“You see it as” I came from this environment. I want to be able to use these new skills, bring them back to my community and have an impact on reducing disease in these populations, “Haggins said.
“I think from the faculty point of view, sometimes you are so used to doing what you did or did [mentoring] In a way that someone has looked after you that they just don’t have the innovative skills to talk more about where [students] come from what motivates them. “
According to the U of M Medical School, black students accounted for about 4% of total enrollment for incoming classes in 2019 and 2020. Despite the relatively small number, Haggins remains optimistic about adjusting the percentage to the total population.
“We even see last year with the COVID crisis that there are many people who are interested in studying medicine, but especially among black and brown students,” said Haggins. “What I hope for them is that when they arrive here they will be given a program that creates an environment in which they can get the impact they want, and actually do it [has] the community benefit that I hope most academic centers would want. “
The community beyond U of M.
Eventually, Albert Wheeler felt compelled to take his work off campus. He and his wife, Emma Wheeler, helped found the Ann Arbor Chapter of the NAACP, and Emma later served as president. Albert was elected Ann Arbor’s first African American Mayor in the 1970s.
The Wheelers had three girls. Today, their daughter, Mary McDade, is an Illinois Appellate Judge.
She says her father’s activism at the University of M and Ann Arbor was reflected in the lessons he shared at home.
“He realized that as women and blacks it was going to be an uphill struggle to do anything in this life,” said McDade.
“He kept reminding us that when you used your brain when you applied, there was nothing you couldn’t do.”
The University of Michigan owns the broadcasting license of Michigan Radio.
The series editor was Sarah Hulett.