He enrolled but not before explaining to the dean of Meharry Medical College why he was leaving, and that opened another conundrum.
“The dean at Meharry said, ‘Son, you are number two in your class. If you go to the University of Tennessee they will flunk you out and we will lose a good doctor,’” says Crawford.
But that was just part of the problem, the Meharry dean explained. His respectable school trained scores of Black physicians, largely at the time because aspiring Black medical students were denied entry to white state schools across the South. If these students could now attend cheaper state-supported, predominantly white institutions, Meharry would be at risk of losing its best students.
That said, the Meharry dean still understood the need for an end to segregation in medical schools. Crawford settled in for a solitary journey at the University of Tennessee.
“I told my brother ‘you didn’t tell me how much of a challenge this would be,’” recalls Crawford. “Everyone expected me to fail. I never had an adviser and was never allowed to go into the major community hospitals where most of the clinical training occurred in the junior and senior year because they were all segregated. It was quite a unique experience.”
“There were no class parties, no picnics, no social life or get-togethers that I could attend primarily because Jim Crow laws at that time did not allow social integration in any form,” says Crawford.
The young medical student told the University of Tennessee medical school dean during an interview he would pass as long as he was given the same exam as others.
“My mother was a strange lady,” says Crawford. “She said, ‘Never let your oppressor know you are a victim. I don't want any of my children to be victims.’ As a result, there were no outward protests or outcries.
Crawford did graduate, and he was in the top of his class. He went on to train at residencies in the U.S. Naval Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital both in Boston. He received the outstanding resident’s award from the Boston Orthopaedic Club in 1970.
Crawford also did fellowships at the New England Baptist Hospital and Children’s Hospital Medical Center, both in Boston, and at Alfred I. DuPont Institute in Wilmington Delaware. During all of these impressive training Crawford was the only Black male.
Crawford joined the UC College of Medicine faculty in 1977 and continued until becoming an emeritus professor in 2013. Crawford is best-known for his tenure at Cincinnati Children’s where he spent 29 years as chief of orthopaedic surgery. He has also practiced orthopaedic surgery at Good Samaritan, Jewish and Christ hospitals along with UC Health. His tenure in medicine has spanned five decades.
But his experience as a young medical student isn’t one he would want others to repeat. He says that while the legal and social barriers he faced during his day are significantly different, other obstacles for Black men completing medical school remain today.
“The obstacles are binary,” says Crawford. “We like to think that it is about prejudice, and we have to do something about it. There is a decrease in males going into medicine even from legacy families in which the grandfather and father were physicians. The extent for entrepreneurship is dwindling as medicine is now controlled and the indemnity fee for service has more or less disappeared.”
“Black males aren’t applying as much to medical school even though their grades have increased dramatically since the 1970s and 1980s,” says Crawford. “Other fields are now open to these academically-talented individuals today.”
He says the rigors of medical school aren’t insurmountable but that persistence even with a few stumbles is crucial. Crawford, who participates in an academic appeals, review committee for the UC medical school, describes a difference in students who have encountered difficulties and had to repeat courses through summer study or other means. He noticed that when this has occurred for Black students, the paths for Black men and Black women can differ.
“The females will usually trudge persistently along and get it done, but the males will look for other opportunities and leave,” says Crawford. “It is my desire that our mentoring program will give our most at risk group for failure a more nourishing and supportive environment.”
“It’s comforting to think of changing the dynamic of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ to ‘I see and will be,’” says Crawford.
Featured image at top: (left to right) Senu Apewokin, MD, speaks with Alvin Crawford, MD, and medical students Adam Bulter, Austin Thompson and Michael Deal. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand