While working on the African Americans of Wichita book project, I was struck by how many prominent figures of the 20th century were veterinarians. For example, Dr. Thomas G. Perry opened the first small animal hospital on Cleveland Street in 1921, later joining the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Other figures included Dr. G. T. Bronson, Tuskegee airman Dr. Don Jackson and Dr. T. E. McDonald.
Given that my father is a veterinarian, the number of animal doctors in the community definitely caught my attention.
Several of these figures were graduates of Kansas State’s program, one that offered African Americans a measure of opportunity not found in many other areas. In the early 20th century, African Americans were severely limited in the medical fields. Not all medical schools allowed African Americans to join, and those who did graduate found themselves limited in terms of who they could treat and where they could practice.
Hospitals, like so many other aspects of everyday life, were segregated. Veterinary medicine, however, was more flexible. Young African Americans who wanted a medical background found vet schools more open and encountered fewer restrictions on practice once they graduated.
Things changed in the 1970s, when the desegregation of medical schools and hospitals unfolded. By then, aspiring medical students were encouraged to go into the treatment of humans rather than dogs and cats.
Research suggests that domestic animals see colors differently than humans do, or not at all in some cases. How fitting, perhaps, that it was in the treatment of animals that early challenges to the color barrier took place. Veterinary schools such as that of Kansas State University deserve credit for their often unappreciated legacy in promoting the integration of society.