Fulfilling a Legacy: Medicine as My Conduit for Seeking Justice
I hear my ancestors whispering in my ear, ‘Daughter, you were called for just this moment!’
I knew at the age of 12 that I wanted to be a physician despite having no one in my immediate or extended family in the medical field. It was simply a God-given calling to serve people. During my time at Northwestern University as a premedical student, I spent the majority of my Saturdays working under the tutelage of a Black obstetrician-gynecologist treating women with a myriad of different medical problems. It was there that I got my first dose of the harsh realities of health inequities: Black women and babies die at higher rates than Whites during childbirth, and if you didn’t have health insurance, it was harder to seek medical treatment. Those early experiences as a young observer helped shaped the lens from which I view my service as a physician. Throughout my medical career, I have sought to use medicine as my conduit for justice and equity through my clinical work, teaching medical students, clinical research focused on vulnerable populations, and community engagement.
Faculty Highlight: Amber Brooks, MD
Amber Brooks, MD, may be an anesthesiologist by training but she's also an educator, an advocate, a researcher, a…
This mission to seek justice runs deep in my veins. I am the great-granddaughter of Julius Caesar Judkins, one of the first African American males to graduate from Northwestern University’s law school in 1915. Shortly after I was admitted to Northwestern University in 1997, nearly nine decades after my great grandfather started his journey at our alma mater, I would learn about his extraordinary accomplishments as a civil rights attorney in Grant County (Marion), Indiana.
A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America, by James H. Madison, vividly describes the backdrop during which my great-grandfather was practicing law in Grant County, Indiana. In 1930, a mob of White men and women lynched two Black teenagers, Abe Smith and Tom Shipp, in Marion, Indiana, before they could stand trial for the alleged rape of a White woman. Lynching is as American as apple pie and not relegated to the South. From 1880 to 1930, 123 Black Americans died at the hands of Northern lynch mobs, 79 of them in the Midwest.
Much like the rest of the country, Grant County, Indiana, was grappling with racial divide. After all, the North was supposed to be the land of the free for all. In 1917, my great grandfather and one of his law partners, William Amsden, were hired by the Burden sisters, Marsha and Vennie, after they were denied the right to eat at the “New York Candy Kitchen” even though they had dined their multiple times in the past. Leaning on Indiana’s 1885 civil rights law, attorneys Judkins and Amsden won their case after a jury of 12 White Grant County men sided with the Burden sisters. In May 1918 a verdict of $25 was awarded to each woman. Justice had been served, it seemed. But the attorneys for the New York Candy Kitchen didn’t give up easily. They argued that under Indiana’s 1885 civil rights law the New York Candy Kitchen, which served candy, ice cream, and sodas, did not meet the criteria for an “eating house.” After three long years of legal battles, the Appellate Court of Indiana upheld the right of the New York Candy Kitchen to deny service to Blacks. This is just one of many cases in Grant County, Indiana, that my great-grandfather would fight, oftentimes with limited resources and less than promising outcomes.
As I reflect on my own journey as a Black physician during the double pandemic of Covid-19 and racial injustice, I find myself thinking about my great-grandfather and the enormous challenges he faced while fighting for equity and justice for Black people. I hear him whispering in my ear, “Keep pushing, my daughter, for you were called for just this time.” And so I do just that.
The Covid-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black people; we are dying at three times the rate of Whites and being hospitalized at four times the rate of Whites. The reasons for the disparities include access to health care, higher prevalence of comorbid conditions, higher likelihood of being essential workers, and systemic racism in medicine. Equal access to the vaccine and vaccine hesitancy threatens to widen this disparity gap. Black physicians, who make up only 5% of the all physicians in the United States, are more likely to live and work in areas where Black people reside. Many of us feel an urgency deep down in our bones to save our people from severe Covid-19 related illness and, worse yet, death. I’ve had difficult conversations with friends, family, and staff members about the vaccine. “Look what they did to us with the Tuskegee experiments; the government doesn’t care about Black people; they are trying to kill us,” etc. I listen to their concerns. I acknowledge the atrocities of the past. I share with them that the development of the vaccine was led by Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, a 35-year-old Black female immunologist at the National Institute of Health. I give them facts and data and answer all of their questions so that they can make a well-informed decision about the vaccine. And, most importantly, I lead by example; I have received both doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.
The road we must climb in medicine to provide quality health care to all people feels really steep at times. For example, we have a large body of evidence that suggests that when we diversify our physician workforce, patient outcomes improve. And, yet, the number of Black men enrolled in medical school actually decreased between 1978 and 2014, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2015 report Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine. As the demographics in our nation continue to become more diverse, medical schools must focus on building pipelines to ensure that that the physician workforce resembles the population that we serve.
My grandfather, Julius Caesar Judkins Jr., would go on to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a prolific civil rights attorney in Richmond, Indiana. His accomplishments were many, including secretary of the National Bar Association (Black organization for attorneys), legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and member of the American Bar Association (after being denied membership twice to the primarily White organization for attorneys). His life was suddenly cut short at the age of 35 on October 22, 1955, from complications due to high blood pressure. I imagine the weight of racial injustice on his young shoulders was far too heavy to carry. Twenty-four years later, on October 22, 1979, I entered the world. My grandmother always told me that the day I was born, her grief was replaced with joy. I was an answered prayer. Through me, his oldest grandchild, I continue his and his father’s legacy of service and seeking justice for others. Onward and upward!
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