This story is part of a Michigan Radio series for Black History Month on Black Michiganders who made contributions to science and medicine.
Albert Wheeler understood that in order to succeed in science and medicine, Black people needed access to quality education.
Originally from Missouri, Wheeler arrived in Ann Arbor in 1937 to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Some of his mentors had urged him to go to medical school. Wheeler felt more suited to public health.
"I just didn't see myself charging people for that kind of service," he said in a 1987 interview with the group Historica Critica archived at U of M's Bentley Historical Library. "And so I decided I would like to go into public health because that was a preventative medicine rather than curative."
Pushing for change
For more than 50 years after that, Wheeler pushed. He pushed through slights and insults as a graduate student, including the time he was assigned to grade papers, but not allowed to enter a lab where white students were allowed to work and teach. He also pushed to get the professional opportunities he deserved at U of M as a researcher 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 venereal disease.
Wheeler said others saw him as “controversial.”
"I thought I was working for what I was entitled to as a human being. And things are so bad in terms of how attitudes work that you have to do something," he said. "You couldn't just sit on your fanny and say, 'Oh, please, fellows and gals, accept me as a human being.' You had to fight like hell for it. But I paid for that."
One of the ways Wheeler paid was with long delays for promotions that 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 the U of M Medical School.
Wheeler’s daughter, former Michigan state legislator Alma Wheeler Smith, says her father also helped African-Americans get opportunities in other parts of the university.
"I think my dad always thought that it was important for kids to see people who looked like them in different professions," Wheeler Smith told Michigan Radio. "To have a Black person in a role that they were told they couldn't achieve was important because it put a lie to the myth."
Yesterday's challenges, today's reality
Wheeler died in 1994, but if he was alive today, he’d likely be troubled by statistics that show just 5% of doctors in the U.S. today are Black, while Black Americans make up about 13% of the population.
And Black medical students and physicians can still face bias and overt racism in their work.
Dr. Adrianne Haggins is an emergency physician and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the the U of M Medical School. Part of her research focuses on diversifying health care staffing and improving the experience for underrepresented groups in medical school and later in their careers.
Haggins is African-American and has worked at the university since 2010. She said her experiences range from patients staring at her in surprise as she walks into a room and announces herself as a physician, to much worse.
"Unfortunately, I've had a couple of encounters where the patient blatantly asked me to leave and used expletives related to my race to reinforce that they did not want me involved in the care," Haggins said.
"At one point, I was a trainee and the attending physician really didn't know what to say [to the patient]. And it was frustrating because you want to be able to stand up and say, 'No, I am a part of the team. We do not tolerate that type of language here.' But then when you look for your staff members to back you up, you can't find that. You feel sort of disempowered in those moments and have to internally just deal with it for yourself and keep working."
Shifting the culture at medical schools
In a paper she wrote for the journal Academic Medicine titled "To Be Seen, Heard, and Valued," Haggins cites research that found that some experienced academic physicians are reluctant to mention race while mentoring minority students. But African-American residents said they wanted to make their racial identity part of their professional roles.
"They view it as, 'I came from this environment. I want to be able to take these new skills, take it back to my community, have an impact on reducing disease within these populations,'"Haggins said.
"I think from a faculty standpoint, sometimes you're so used to doing what you've been doing or [mentoring] in a way that someone mentored you, that they just don't have that innovative skill set to start talking more about where [students] are coming from, what motivates them."
According to data from the U of M Medical School, Black students made up about 4% of the total enrollment of the incoming classes in 2019 and 2020. Despite the relatively low numbers, Haggins remains optimistic about bringing the percentage in line with the overall population.
"We are seeing, even within the last year with the crisis of COVID, that there's a lot of people that are interested in going into medical school, but especially among Black and brown students," Haggins said. "What I hope for them is that when they arrive here, that they are provided a program that creates an environment that allows them to have the impact that they want to have, and actually [has] the community benefit that I'm hoping most academic centers would want."
The community beyond U of M
Eventually, Albert Wheeler felt compelled to take his work beyond 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 appellate court judge in Illinois.
She says her father's activism at U of M and in Ann Arbor came through in the lessons he shared at home.
"He recognized that as women and as Black people, it was going to be an uphill struggle to do anything in this life," McDade said.
"He was constantly reminding us that if you used your brains, if you applied yourself, there was nothing that you couldn't do."
The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio’s broadcast license.
The series editor was Sarah Hulett.