The Forerunners


Breaking the color line for medical students was a decades-long story.


They came, for the most part, from points far away from the farmland and hills of the Green Mountain State. They came from other shores, and from cities and towns across the American South. They were the first few African American students to study medicine at the University of Vermont, and their stories have remained largely untold. In the halls of the College, old framed class photos show row upon row of white faces—so many that, for most people who walk by, the few graduates of color barely register. But they were here, for several decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their stories deserve to stand out.

Though small in number as a group, African Americans had been part of the Vermont community from the 18th century. But it was not until the mid-19th century that any person of color gained admission to the University of Vermont. Underscoring the rarity of this occurrence is the record of confusion that surrounds it: for decades, the first African American graduate of the University was thought to be the Class of 1877’s George Washington Henderson. But in 2004, research revealed that Andrew Harris, who later went on to serve as a minister and noted abolitionist in New York City, had received a degree from UVM in 1838. It took four decades after Harris for UVM’s College of Medicine to cross the color line. Perhaps Henderson’s presence on campus affected the medical faculty: in 1878, shortly after he’d earned his degree, they voted to approve a motion to admit Black medical students.

Medical Class of 1891


Not a lot of detailed information exists for the first, Thomas James Davis, who graduated with the Class of 1885. What is known is that Davis was born in Jamaica in 1866. Within a few years of leaving Vermont he was living in Savannah, Ga., working with the Charity Hospital and Training School for Nurses, and through that institution is connected with a later African American graduate of the College, Cornelius McKane. Davis died in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1903, at age 39, and was buried in Savannah’s Laurel Grove South Cemetery, where his beautifully carved tombstone indicates his membership in the Freemasons.

Four years after Davis graduated, William Richard Randolph Granger received his degree with the Class of 1889. Granger led a storybook life. Born in Barbados, he served on a merchant ship, and at 16 deserted when in a U.S. port and found his way to Philadelphia. Befriended by Quakers, he eventually found his way to Bucknell College, then Howard University, the historically Black institution in Washington, D.C., and then gained entry to UVM as a medical student. After graduation, he married and settled briefly in Arkansas, then joined the Oklahoma Land Rush. The Grangers lived in Guthrie, Okla., until the territory passed Jim Crow laws in 1895, whereupon they moved to Newport News, Va. Ultimately, they settled for good in Newark, N.J., and raised six sons, five of whom would become either physicians or dentists. The sixth son, Lester, spent 20 years as the head of the National Urban League, one of the nation’s premier civil rights organizations. W.R.R. Granger died in Newark in 1925..

Cornelius McKane was the great-grandson of the ruler of two West African tribes who lived in the area that is now Liberia, the country organized in the early 19th century as a haven for former slaves and free-born people of color from the United States and points across the Carribean. McKane’s grandmother had been sold into slavery and transported to the region that became British Guiana, where McKane was born in 1862. Around 1872 McKane moved with his parents to Liberia, but in 1880 found his way to New York City. Under the guidance of a prominent Baptist deacon in the city, he received a high school education, and briefly attended the City College of New York. But Liberia beckoned to him, and he returned there for several years, studying languages, teaching, and briefly serving as head of the Republic of Liberia’s education department.

Carmichael, Johnson, and Gray, Class of 1914

Yearbook and class photos of Claude Carmichael, M.D.1914, Douglas Johnson, M.D.1914,
and Hugh M. Gray, M.D.1914

Somewhere during this time, McKane developed the desire for a career in medicine. He returned to the United States, and in 1888 entered UVM’s College of Medicine. He graduated with his M.D. in 1891. McKane is the first African American graduate of the College for whom there exists a visual record of his time here: a single photograph of the Class of 1891. He appears as a face among the crowd at the top of the school’s back stairway. McKane completed a post-graduate year at Dartmouth, and went on to a noted career in Savannah, Ga., where he also met and married a physician, Alice Woodby. Together the couple founded a training school for nurses, and Charity Hospital (where Thomas James Davis would cross paths with his fellow UVM graduate). They later set up a joint private practice that endured until McKane’s death in 1912.

Robert E.L. Holland was born in 1864, one of nine children in his family in Montgomery County, Texas, just north of what was then the small town of Houston. He was in the first class of what is now Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black institution located just west of his home town. After studying medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, he came to UVM, where he earned his medical degree in 1895. Afterwards, he returned to Texas and practiced in the town of Temple for 20 years. He left medicine for several years to run a school in Austin, before returning to many years of practice in Dallas in 1921. He died at the age of 93 in 1958.

Just one class behind Dr. Holland at the College of Medicine was David N.E. Campbell. Born in 1871 in Jamaica, he was a schoolmaster for several years. He then gained entrance to the College of Medicine and set sail for America, arriving in September of 1892. After graduating, he appears to have also been ordained as a Baptist minister. Eventually he settled in Baltimore and was listed as “lung and nerve specialist.” Over the years, he patented at least two inventions and published a book about the Panama Canal. Dr. Campbell’s exact year of death is unknown, but he appears to have lived well into his seventies, as he appears in the “Who’s Who in Jamaica” of 1945.

George Walter Williams stands out as the first Vermonter of color to attend the College. Williams grew up on Elmwood Avenue, the son of a barber, and was a standout student and athlete at Edmunds High School. He continued that record of achievement at UVM when he entered as a first-year medical student in 1905. Although we have some details of Williams’ life before medical school, there is scant information about life afterward. It is known that he had a general medical practice for some time in Winooski. At some point Williams seems to have given up medicine, and he died sometime in the 1940s in Medford, Mass.


(Counterclockwise) David Campbell, M.D.1896, David Morris, M.D.1923, Myrtle Douglas Johnson, M.D., with fellow members of her Class of 1953 and George W. Williams, M.D.1909.

The “teens” just before the start of World War I saw three medical students of color at the College of Medicine at the same time. Claude Carmichael, Hugh M. Gray, and Douglas Beverly Johnson even roomed together in the same lodgings on Cherry Street. Carmichael was born the son of a schoolteacher in 1892 in Edna, a small town not far from the coast in southeastern Texas. He, like Robert Holland, attended what is now Prairie View A&M University, and it is possible that he had some contact with Dr. Holland, whose practice was just a few counties away.

He spent two years at Howard University Medical School before coming to Burlington to complete his medical education. At this same time, Hugh M. Gray and Douglas Johnson also made the move from Howard to UVM. Gray was born in 1889 in Virginia, where he was educated in the public schools. After graduation from UVM he married, and practiced in the Arlington, Va. area for the rest of his career, before his death in 1961.

Claude Carmichael had a long career of service to patients in the District of Columbia for 57 years. He served in the military in World War I and, during World War II, he led more than 30,000 physicals for the Selective Service. Carmichael also was a journalist and published hundreds of baseball columns in the Washington Tribune and Washington Afro-American. He died in 1971 at age 79, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The third roommate on Cherry Street, Douglas Beverly Johnson, was born in 1888 in Petersburg, Va., where his father was a mathematics professor at what is now Virginia State University (VSU). Johnson attended VSU, Richmond’s Virginia Union University, and Howard University before matriculating at UVM and moving into his temporary home on Cherry Street. He returned to Petersburg after graduation and went into practice. Later he served in France in World War I as a surgeon. Returning from the war to New York City on a troopship, he fell in love with the city, and settled there. He married his wife, Myrtle, in 1920 and became a prominent member pf the Harlem medical community before his untimely death from appendicitis in 1925, leaving behind a young daughter and his wife, who was pregnant at the time. That baby, who would never know her father, would follow in his footsteps years later.

As Johnson was leaving Burlington, Ernest R. Alexander was finishing studying at the University of Minnesota before heading to UVM. He thrived at the College, where he was awarded “Honor Man in Medicine” and the Woodbury Prize for clinical proficiency. After graduation he opened a practice in Harlem and was on staff at both Harlem Hospital and Bellevue. Alexander and his wife, Lillian, were very active in the years of the Harlem Renaissance. He was one of the first “life members” of the NAACP, and corresponded extensively with one the organization’s founders, W.E.B. DuBois. After his death in 1960 his widow donated the “E.R. Alexander Collection of Negroana,” which includes a huge gathering of rare sheet music, to Fisk University, the historically Black institution in Nashville, where Dr. Alexander had served on the Board of Trustees.

David Gladstone Morris came to UVM from Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting historically Black university, after early life in Miami, Fla. His classmates in Burlington appreciated his scientific acumen, noting in the Ariel yearbook of 1923 that “his scholarly attributes have won a place with us, and will surely gain him his mark in after years. He did indeed mark his mark. Settling in Bayonne, N.J., within sight of the towers of Manhattan, Alexander became a fixture in his community, including three terms of service as president of the medical staff of Bayonne Hospital, and is credited with instrumental work in desegregating theaters and restaurants in the city. Two years after his 1979 retirement, Bayonne dedicated David Morris Park in his honor.

Douglas Johnson’s second daughter, Myrtle Douglas Johnson, matriculated to the College of Medicine in 1949, and received her M.D. degree in 1953, the first one. awarded by UVM to an African American woman. She went on to practice anesthesiology for more than 40 years on Long Island in New York, and early in her career worked with fellow anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar, developer of the scale used to this day to rate the health of newborns. Dr. Johnson’s son, Michael Newstein, also became a physician.

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These dozen pioneering individuals broke the color line at the College of Medicine, but it was many years before the institution made any true progress on diversity. Just as it was not until the 1960s that African American medical faculty would be hired at UVM, it took until the 1970s for any other medical students of color to graduate, and till the 1990s for the next Black woman to earn her M.D. Their achievement serves to underscore the fact that the work is far from done.

Special thanks to Tiffany Delaney, M.A. Ed., Director of the Larner Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, for her help in researching this article; and to Prudence Doherty of UVM’s Silver Special Collections Library.

(Above, circled) A detailed view shows Cornelius McKane standing in the middle of the upper step of the staircase.