“This College will decline to receive ‘colored’ applicants for matriculation”: VP&S and the Question of Black Students in the Late 19th Century

The College of Physicians & Surgeons, Park Avenue South & 23rd Street, 1856-1887.

The nation’s ongoing struggle to confront racism in all aspects of American life has turned its attention to the deep historical roots of this issue.  At Columbia, the University’s attempts to address its complicity in slavery and racism have taken several forms. The University’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons (VP&S) has recently stripped the name of its founder, Samuel Bard, from its residence hall because of his slaveholding and undergraduate students have done extensive research into Columbia’s involvement in slavery. More efforts are on-going at both the Morningside Heights and Medical Center campuses.

Before the Civil War while many African Americans, both slave and free, served as healers of various kinds for their communities, it was almost impossible for them to receive the medical degree in the United States. The first African American to earn the MD, New York City’s James McCune Smith in 1837, had to do so at Scotland’s University of Glasgow.  Though he had a distinguished career as physician, abolitionist, and public intellectual, Smith was not allowed to join any of the nation’s professional medical organizations.

VP&S is now known to have expelled James Parker Barnett in 1850 when it learned he had “Negro blood” – although he had successfully completed two years of studies at VP&S without incident.  That same year, Harvard’s medical school had to revoke its acceptance of three African Americans in the face of a student rebellion.[1]

Things improved marginally after the Civil War with establishment of medical schools for African Americans at Howard (1868) and Meharry (1876), but the number of African American physicians remained painfully low – and remains so today with the American Association of Medical Colleges reporting in 2018 that only 5% of US physicians were Black or African American, compared to their share of approximately 12%-13% of the US population.[2]

While Harvard relented and graduated its first African American medical student in 1869, VP&S remained strongly opposed to racial integration of its student body. New research in the College’s faculty minutes reveals just how entrenched this racism was.  On March 20, 1866 – not quite a year since the end of the Civil War – the minutes note that “the Secretary was instructed to refuse matriculation in the College to all colored persons until otherwise ordered by the Faculty.”[3]

This tentative stance was clarified two months later when a more definitive decision was reached:

“After due discussion it was Voted that the Secretary be confidentially instructed to suspend the matriculation of colored students, if any should present themselves, until their cases shall have been submitted to and decided upon by the Faculty; and that these instructions take the place of those passed upon the same subject at the Faculty meeting of March 20th.”[4]

A charitable interpretation of this ruling might be that the faculty had left the door open just a little for the admission of an “exceptional” African American.  But in practice this wasn’t the case.  Four years later when an African American actually applied for admission the faculty weaseled out: “the Secretary was directed to reply that the Faculty have the subject of admitting colored students still under consideration, and are not yet ready to give any answer.”[5]

We have no idea who this applicant was or whether he realized his ambitions of becoming a physician.  Seven years later in 1877, however, a case came up where we do know the outcome.  The applicant was a young Puerto Rican of African ancestry, José Celso Barbosa, who among many other achievements is known for being the first Puerto Rican to receive the medical degree from a continental U.S. university.  Columbia wasn’t that university, however.

José Celso Barbosa from the 1880 University of Michigan yearbook.

Barbosa was born in 1857.  He received his secondary education at his native country’s Jesuit Seminary where he was the first person of color to attend that school.  He then came to the United States to pursue advanced education at Fort Edward Institute in upstate New York.  Having decided to become a physician he applied to VP&S at the urging of a Dr. Wendell, described as his “mentor.”[6]

Since the faculty still hadn’t made a firm decision on whether to admit persons of color, its secretary, the physiologist John Green Curtis, asked for instructions.  The matter was considered at the faculty meeting of Oct. 4, 1877. As usual with minutes, we have no idea how controversial this proposal was; all we know is the outcome:

"Resolved, that from this date forward this College will decline to receive ‘colored’ applicants for matriculation. On this resolution Drs. McLane & J.G. Curtis voted nay.”[7]

It is somewhat ironic that the letter Barbosa received denying him admission on grounds “of color” was signed by faculty secretary Curtis, one of the two faculty members who voted against the resolution.

After Columbia’s rejection, the University of Michigan’s medical school admitted Barbosa that same year. He graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1880 and is Michigan’s first Puerto Rican graduate.  Barbosa went on to a distinguished career in his native country as a physician and politician.  He founded the Puerto Rican statehood party and served as Senator from 1917 until his death in 1921.  Indeed, Barbosa is so significant a figure in Puerto Rican history that his birthday, July 27, is a Commonwealth holiday.[8]

It would not be until 1904 that VP&S admitted an openly acknowledged African American, Travis Johnson, who graduated in 1908.  It may be a sign of progress that the faculty minutes of 1904 have no discussion of whether to admit Johnson.  That said, the number of Black or African American medical students at Columbia remained painfully small until the 1970s. Currently, the Class of 2023 includes 30 students considered “underrepresented minorities” or 21% of the class.

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[1] Melissa Bailey, “Harvard Medical School students decry lack of diversity,” Stat, Feb. 8, 2016: https://www.statnews.com/2016/02/08/harvard-medical-school-diversity/ Accessed Sept. 25, 2020.

[2] AAMC, “Diversity in Medicine: Facts and Figures 2019: https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/interactive-data/figure-18-percentage-all-active-physicians-race/ethnicity-2018 Accessed Sept. 25, 2020.

[3] College of Physicians & Surgeons, Minutes of the Faculty, March 20, 1866, v. 3, p. 77.

[4] College of Physicians & Surgeons, Minutes of the Faculty, June 19, 1866, v. 3, p. 86.

[5] College of Physicians & Surgeons, Minutes of the Faculty, June 30, 1870, v. 3, p. 151.

[6] Perhaps Abraham Guillermo Wendell, Class of 1877, who is listed in the College catalogs as a native of Peru.

[7] College of Physicians & Surgeons, Minutes of the Faculty, Oct. 4, 1877, v. 4, p. 119.

[8] For an overview of Barbosa’s career see his Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Celso_Barbosa Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.

Image: The College of Physicians & Surgeons, Park Avenue South & 23rd Street, 1856-1887.

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Great story Steve. Sent it on to Susie. Hope you are well.

Rich