After a rejection from Emory School of Medicine more than 60 years ago because of his race, physician M. Gerald Hood tells his story of resolve and triumph.
Marion Gerald Hood’s last Founders’ Day as a student at Clark College coincided with the school’s 90th anniversary. The event was the culmination of a days-long celebration, and the college awarded four honorary degrees that evening in 1959.
Five years after Brown v. Board of Education, it riled him that Clark, a historically Black college, had honored a man from still-segregated Emory.
“They gave an Emory University professor an honorary degree,” Hood remembers. “I said to myself, ‘Gosh, he can come over here and get an honorary degree at my school, and I can’t even set foot on his campus.’ And I didn’t think that was quite right.” So, Hood filled out an application and sent it in, along with a letter to him that said, “As a classmate of mine, could you help me get into medical school at Emory?”
Hood’s “honorary classmate” was more influential at Emory than he realized. He was none other than Goodrich C. White, Emory’s president from 1942 to 1957 and at the time its chancellor.
White did not write back, but Hood did receive a swift and pointed rejection from L. L. Clegg, Emory’s director of admissions.
A Chance to Listen and Be Heard
On June 17, nearly 62 years after its rejection of his application, the Emory School of Medicine formally apologized to Hood and invited him to share with the Emory community his story of tenacity and resilience. “Giving Voice: The Rest of His Story with Dr. Marion Hood” was held to commemorate Juneteenth, the newest federal holiday.
“Advancing the School of Medicine’s lens to a climate and culture of inclusion and belonging cannot be done without restorative justice. As a university, acknowledging our past is a necessary step toward an empowered future,” says Carolyn Meltzer, the School of Medicine’s chief diversity officer and executive associate dean for faculty academic advancement, leadership and inclusion, and co-moderator of the event.
“Giving Voice” is one of several initiatives undertaken broadly by the university and by the School of Medicine in particular to look at the institution’s history in a candid and unflinching manner.
A small group was on hand at Convocation Hall to honor Hood at the largely virtual program, including Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “Throughout American history and Emory’s history, Dr. Hood and so many other talented students were denied access to achieve their dreams and realize their potential,” Fenves said in his opening remarks. “This one individual and this one letter vividly shows the systematic injustice of that time and the legacy that Emory is still reckoning with.”
Also present were Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Jonathan Lewin; Chief Diversity Officer Carol E. Henderson; School of Medicine Dean Vikas Sukhatme; William Eley, executive associate dean for medical education and student affairs; Yolanda Hood, director of multicultural affairs at the School of Medicine; and second-year medical student Sydni Williams, president of the Emory Student National Medical Association. Sheryl Heron, associate dean for community engagement, equity, and inclusion at the School of Medicine, served as co-moderator and interviewer.
After the event, Lewin noted that, “While diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values and a critical focus for us, this event reminds us that ensuring racial equality and eliminating social injustice are works in progress that require our constant effort and attention.”
August 5, 1959 | From Emory University Director of Admissions
Dear Mr. Hood:
Acknowledgement is made of your letter of July 30, enclosing your application for admission to our School of Medicine.
I am sorry I must write you that we are not authorized to consider for admission a member of the Negro race.
I regret that we cannot help you.
Yours very truly,
L. L. Clegg, Director of Admissions
P.S. I am returning herewith your $5.00 application fee.
‘Bookish’ and Driven to Succeed
A product of Griffin, Georgia, 21-year-old Hood was thoroughly versed in the customs of the Jim Crow South when he applied to Emory and was not really expecting to be admitted. But in that fearless way of youth, he was trying to make a point. After all, he had the drive and fortitude to attend college when his circumstances as one of three children of a single mother and his race had closed that door for so many others.
Hood’s mother, a practical nurse, was the impetus for so much of what he achieved—and not just because of her unwavering support. “I went to the doctor once with my mother, and we went through the back door and they put us in a little room like a closet and she sat on a Coca-Cola crate,” he remembers. “We had to wait until they saw everybody else and then the doctor came back and took care of her.” He decided then that he wanted to become a physician.
Gerald Hood with his mother, Jessie Lee Hood Trice, after his 1959 Clark College graduation. A practical nurse, she reared him and his two siblings in Griffin, Ga.
Before attending medical school at Loyola University Chicago, Hood was in the process of obtaining a master’s degree in biochemistry at Howard University. His longtime friend, retired dentist Lewin Manly, recalled Hood as being bookish and hard-working at Howard. He held down several jobs to make ends meet.
“He was a country boy in class, so nobody paid any attention to him,” Manly says. “After his first midterm, the professor in the class said, ‘There’s only one person in the class who made an A on this test. Mr. Hood, would you stand up?’” Hood became very popular in class and at Howard after that, Manly says.
At Loyola, Hood was the only Black student in his class and one of only two Black students in the school. The atmosphere was decidedly unwelcoming. “People ignored me because they didn’t want to embarrass me, and people ignored me because of what I was. That was everyday living,” Hood says. He still struggled financially but did find a small number of advocates and mentors at Loyola willing to help. Together, they made a difference.
In the fraternity house where Hood lived, the house cooks were a Black couple who made sure Hood had a plate of food after his shifts. Two of Hood’s female classmates introduced him to a Catholic priest. One day, the priest took Hood out to dinner and told him, “My church has a ministry and we’re going to give you $30 a month—a dollar a day. This is for you to go out on the weekends and have a beer with the guys.”
In one of the peculiarities of the segregation era, the state of Georgia paid Black students the difference in cost to attend school out of state. “If it cost $500 a year to go to school in Georgia, and it cost $1,000 to go up there, they would pay the extra $500 so I would pay the same thing,” Hood explains. “And I would come home each semester, go down to the capitol, and reluctantly they would give me this check to take back to Loyola University.”
In 1962, when Hood was in his second year of medical school, Emory officially desegregated, after the Georgia Supreme Court sided with the university in its challenge to state laws that denied tax-exempt status to racially integrated schools. The university admitted its first Black medical student, Hamilton E. Holmes, in 1963.
Hood went on to an internship in Orange County, California, and returned to Chicago for his obstetrics/gynecology residency. He served in Vietnam as a doctor after completing his education and came back to Atlanta to start his own practice of 45 years, retiring in 2008. Not only did Hood experience racism in the pursuit of his education, but it also followed him into practice as well.
During the program he told of an encounter with an emergency room patient. “He woke up and looked at me and spit in my face,” Hood recalled, his voice breaking. “I was a doctor. I wanted to take care of people, and sometimes you have to take care of people that you don’t really like or that you don’t really want. You can’t be disrespectful. You have to always respect the patient.”
Hood married relatively late in life. He and his wife, Julie, adopted two girls, five years apart in age. Despite Hood being on-call and busy with his practice, both daughters say their dad rarely missed a sports match, recital, or school program while they were growing up.
Hood, age 83, and his wife are about to become first-time grandparents by their younger daughter, Kira Hood-Knott. “I still learn stuff about my dad’s story and how he really did come from little to nothing,” she says. “Just the fact that he didn’t have books to make it through school and there were people in school who purposely tried to hold him back—they didn’t want to study with him, they didn’t want to let him borrow books—he literally grinded his way to learn. He was facing so much adversity just to get through medical school.”
The Story Gets Out
Hood’s mother kept the rejection letter from Emory, which his sister returned to him after their mother’s death. Hood shared the letter with a longtime group of friends he meets with regularly, who asked for copies of it. One of the friends, Herman Reese, former director of financial aid at Emory College from 1971 to 1988, dropped his briefcase after their get together and the contents, including the letter, fell out. A young man helped pick up his papers, read the letter, and took a picture of it, Hood says.
The picture of the letter found its way to social media, where it has cropped up intermittently for several years. Hood was interviewed by the local Fox television affiliate and honored by the city of Atlanta as well as his alma mater, now Clark Atlanta University, after the letter and his story were made public. This year, the photo of the letter was retweeted some 330,000 times.
Many of those dismayed by the contents of the letter included Black alumni of Emory and the School of Medicine, says Marché Simpson, director of diversity and inclusion for Emory’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Engagement. She recalls Hood’s presence at an alumni event that honored his friend Reese, where he was introduced to the audience. Because he goes by his middle name, Gerald, rather than his first name, few at the event realized he was the Marion Hood connected to the letter so many of them had seen and heard about, says Simpson.
Hood’s older daughter, Zoë Hood-Brown, said she found out about the letter about the time the rest of the world did. “My dad never has been the type of person to dwell on anything that has happened to him where he was wronged,” she says. Rather, he used those experiences to motivate him, she contends.
“I was proud of him for sticking up for what he believed was an injustice, and was something that he felt was wrong,” Hood-Brown adds. “It’s amazing to see that he’s not upset with the institution at all. He was just making a point of the injustice.”
Her sister agrees. “My dad was really not looking for anything from the school. I think the letter was a reminder for him of what he’s accomplished and what he’s overcome. And that’s why he framed it—and it wasn’t even in the main part of the house, it was literally in the basement.”
As Emory sought to acknowledge its role in Hood’s racially motivated rejection, representatives asked what he wanted the institution to do. Hood was not sure at first about receiving an apology, as he wasn’t looking for one, says Carol Henderson, vice provost for diversity and inclusion and Emory’s chief diversity officer.
But Emory’s past transgressions regarding race are hidden in plain sight. Going forward, it’s important to understand this, Henderson says. “That means not only celebrating the wonderful things that make Emory the great institution it is, but rediscovering some uncomfortable truths about ourselves as an institution,” she said in her remarks at the program. “1959 has come and gone, but the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion—of justice—cannot be done without remembering this history and the resilience of the people who lived it and experienced it.”
Gerald Hood is still practicing medicine, retraining after his retirement to work two days a week as a primary care physician at YourTown Health, a network of six nonprofit community health centers south of Atlanta.
“The realities of Dr. Hood’s rejection for admission to Emory School of Medicine, notably during the time of segregation, will not and should not diminish Dr. Hood's accomplishments,” says Heron. “He continues to work to this day, exemplifying his commitment to the field of medicine and dedication to the many patients who have benefitted from his care.”
The apology demonstrates Emory’s work to clearly assess and overcome its past racial transgressions. And while Hood’s rejection from the School of Medicine was directed personally at him, he also stands as a proxy for the many people over the years who were denied entry to Emory or suffered discrimination due to their race, religion, disability, background, or identity. Perhaps his story and Emory’s efforts to atone can serve as an inspiration to those once denied, and to future generations of students, that it’s never too late to right a historic wrong.
March 26, 2021 | From Dean Vikas Sukhatme
Dear Dr. Hood,
Emory University has a long and storied history of academic excellence and public service. Yet for generations—from slavery through Jim Crow—that history has been diminished by racist policies that prevented talented African American students from finding a home on our campus. Your own experience reminds us that until 1962, the university was slow to open its doors to African Americans. To this day, we continue to work to build an inclusive, diverse, and equitable campus community.
On behalf of Emory University School of Medicine, I apologize for the letter you received in 1959 in which you were denied consideration for admission due to your race. We are deeply sorry this happened and regret that it took Emory more than 60 years to offer you our sincere apologies. Your long and distinguished career in the field of gynecology and obstetrics, noted for your dedication to serving others, shows you were the ideal candidate for our medical school.
Sadly, we know your experience is not unique for African Americans. Your rejection letter serves as a somber reminder that generations of talented young men and women were denied educational opportunities because of their race, and our society was denied their full potential. An apology does not undo our actions. It is an acknowledgment of the pain that was caused by our school, and an opportunity for us to share our regret directly with you.
Yet our words are only part of our responsibility. We also have important work to do to effect meaningful, lasting change at Emory.
We are taking action within our School of Medicine to become a more diverse, equitable and just community to reflect the communities and patients our graduates will serve. Today, Black students comprise 16 percent of the students in our Doctor of Medicine (MD) program. We invest in multiple pipeline programs to encourage historically underrepresented groups and socio-economically disadvantaged students to pursue careers in health professions, whether at Emory or elsewhere. We are actively working to increase the number of under-represented students in our programs and offer mentoring to provide continued support once they enroll. While we are proud of our progress over the past few years, we know we must stay focused on living up to our values to build a more equitable, just and inclusive community.
Thank you for agreeing to join us for a webinar or discussion to coincide with Emory’s celebration of Juneteenth. Your story is an inspiration to us all and will add new meaning to our observation of this important day.
With sincere gratitude,
Vikas P. Sukhatme, MD, ScD
Dean and Woodruff Professor,
Emory University School of Medicine
Written by Stacey Jones; Photography by Jack Kearse; Design by Peta Westmaas