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CU played key role in educating first black veterinarians

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Joe Schwartz

Cornell is recognized for admitting African-American students during its early years. However, little was known about the role that the veterinary college played in admitting, along with the Ohio State University, most of the black veterinary students before 1920. A decade later, Cornell awarded a Ph.D. to the man who is generally recognized as the most important African-American veterinarian of the 20th century.

My interest in this topic was piqued last year during a course in veterinary history when I discovered that previously accepted university reports failed to identify some of our African-American graduates. After scouring the available literature of veterinary students at Cornell and in Ithaca, and corresponding with librarians and other experts on black veterinary history around the country, I was able to confirm seven graduates between 1910 and 1920.

The first African-American to receive his D.V.M. at Cornell was Kentucky native Kirksey Curd, who later became a physician. Garret Singleton, who graduated two years later, was from Ithaca. His stepmother was well-known for welcoming black students into her house at 411 E. State St. She was considered an influential person for Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's first intercollegiate fraternity for black males, started at Cornell. After graduation, Singleton moved to California and eventually opened a small animal clinic in Venice, Calif.

Owen M. Waller Sr. was a physician in Brooklyn and was one of the founders of the NAACP. Two of his sons attended Cornell's veterinary college. One of them, Ray Potter Waller '17, practiced small animal medicine in Harlem and also worked at the New York City Department of Health. The other son, Owen Waller Jr., was one of three African-American students in the veterinary Class of 1918. Owen was a staunch supporter of the right of black students to participate in varsity athletics. He wrote an influential essay titled "The Colored Man as an Athlete." One of the reasons he was so interested in athletics was that his classmates, W.H. Seabrook and Abram J. Jackson Jr. (an Ithaca native), were stars in track and baseball. After graduation, Waller and Seabrook opened private practices in Brooklyn, and Jackson worked for the federal meat inspection service.

The last African-American to enter Cornell's veterinary college before 1920 was Aubrey E. Robinson, who became a large animal practitioner in New Jersey. His three sons attended Cornell: One became a federal judge and one an engineer. The youngest son, Charles R. Robinson, followed in his father's footsteps, receiving his Cornell D.V.M. in 1944. After serving in the war, he became one of the early veterinary faculty members at Tuskegee Institute.

The most famous African-American veterinarian in U.S. history was Frederick Douglass Patterson, who received his Ph.D. at Cornell in 1932 and became the third president of Tuskegee Institute (now University) three years later. Patterson developed the Tuskegee Airman program (1943) and was responsible for organizing fellow university presidents in establishing the United Negro College Fund (1944). He also founded Tuskegee's veterinary college, making it possible for African-American students to finally receive a veterinary education in the still-segregated South.

Jennifer K. Morrissey is a Cornell veterinary student; she was a 2010 research assistant of Dean Emeritus Donald F. Smith. She contributed to the veterinary legacy project, This article originally was published in the Ithaca Journal.


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