Locations | People

Pontiac honors pioneering black doctors

By Lauren Abdel-Razzaq / The Detroit News

Pontiac — In a small room at the Pontiac Creative Arts Center, a group is on a mission to preserve the city’s African-American heritage.

The volunteers have embarked on a yearlong process of discovery, launching an exhibit and soliciting residents for photos and stories of The Corner on Bagley and Wesson streets, the epicenter of the city’s African-American community in the mid-20th century.

Among those the organizers want to honor are 13 pioneering physicians who were among the first African-Americans to practice medicine in Pontiac. A ceremony is planned from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 9, 2012 at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital’s Franco Communications Center, 44405 Woodward.

“These doctors had a sense of community engagement. … They had a genuine sense of sacrifice,” said former state Rep. Hubert Price Jr., chairman of the greater Pontiac Sesquicentennial Commission.

The event is part of a yearlong exhibition sponsored by the hospital, the creative arts center and the committee.

The Corner, at Bagley and Wesson streets, can trace its roots to World War I, when African-Americans were moving to the region for jobs in the burgeoning industrial sector.

The area thrived at a time when zoning ordinances barred African-Americans from moving into certain neighborhoods. Hospitals weren’t integrated and few places would educate them for a medical career.

“They had to be strong physicians to practice and render quality care under those circumstances,” said Dr. Deirdre Holloway Waterman, an ophthalmologist and a trustee of the National Medical Association, who will also honor the city’s current African-American doctors.

“Those of us who are here now stand on their shoulders, and that’s one of the reasons why we are celebrating them.”

Two of the 13 honorees are living: Dr. Joseph Grayson, a pediatrician, and Dr. Robert Turpin, a dentist.

Dr. Robert Turpin, 90, moved to Pontiac in 1947, opening his own practice in the city. (The Corner)

Turpin, who is 90, was born in Birmingham, Ala., and moved to Pontiac in 1947, opening his own practice.

His son, Dr. Bruce Turpin, followed in his footsteps and took over the practice in the 1980s.

The Turpins were one of the first African-American families to move to Franklin Boulevard, occasionally causing tension with neighbors and law enforcement. Later, when Robert Turpin ran for school board, they faced outright intimidation.

“The house would get threatening phone calls to the point where we had police sitting in the house, a rock was thrown through the front window, my sisters were escorted to school by a policeman when they were going a mile away,” Bruce Turpin said. “It was just part and parcel of being an African-American at those times.

“Those were the kinds of things that unified the community. It was determined that we would get out and vote and put our people in office.”

Many African-American physicians and professionals sought leadership roles in those days, said Turpin.

“A lot of them weren’t afforded opportunity in the South. There were few that were. Those that were afforded opportunity almost felt like it was your obligation to serve others,” said Turpin. “It was a duty for them to help others reach their potentials.”

That is what the group is trying to do now with a career seminar geared toward middle and high school students.

Ultimately, the goal is to digitize the exhibit and use it as a teaching tool in Pontiac’s schools, said Angela Petroff, the director of the arts center and co-chair of the Corner Committee.

Member Leona Patterson said the project will “lay the foundation” for showing African-American students what is possible with perseverance.

“When we’re talking to young people, it can show them this is where we were, and it’s something we have to recapture,” she said. As for further collaboration with young people, said Price, “We’re still on paths of discovery.”

Pioneering doctors being honored:

Dr. Roy V. Cooley

Dr. Otis Ferguson, Sr.

Dr. Rigoberto Guzman

Dr. John Harold

Dr. Herbert Issacs

Dr. Henry Jenkins

Dr. Garfield Johnson

Dr. Howard McNeill

Dr. Harry Riggs

Dr. Mansfield Spears

Dr. George Washington

Dr. Joseph Grayson

Dr. Robert Turpin