Senate motions to scrap 1918 ‘colour bar’ on Black medical students

Edward Thomas submits that body rescind century-old ‘historic wrong’

Thomas looks on at Senate before his presentation.
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This Tuesday, Edward Thomas brought a Notice of Motion to Senate seeking the repeal of a 1918 motion barring Black medical students’ entry to Queen’s.

The ban hasn’t been in effect for decades, but there’s never been formal rejection of the policy, according to Thomas, Sci ’06, MASc ’12, and a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies.

“This institutional rule was enforced as late as 1965, but [the Senate] has never formally addressed, nor repudiated, that policy,” Thomas said in Senate Tuesday.

“No individual here is responsible for the actions of those long since dead, but you, collectively, are caretakers of a living institution whose moral and ethical venture stretches beyond the scale of one human life.”

The motion submitted to Senate recommends the resolution be officially rescinded, and a formal apology be made to those affected. The motion was introduced to Senate on Sept. 25, but won’t be voted on until October’s Senate meeting.

Following Thomas’ address, Principal Daniel Woolf announced to Senate he feels it’s important to “acknowledge and address this part of Queen’s history,” and is “pleased” Thomas has brought the issue to his attention.

In 1918, the Senate—advised by James C. Connell, dean of the faculty of medicine—passed the resolution that would ban Black students from admission to Queen’s medical school.

“The Senate’s policy against Black students—and Black students only—is a direct translation of an AMA [American Medical Association] 1910 policy of race discrimination,” Thomas said.

“There is enough documented evidence to at least suggest that Queen’s policy was influenced, at least initially, by its aggressive pursuit of enhanced AMA ranking for its medical school.”

In 1917, Queen’s received a “C” ranking from the AMA’s Council of Medical Education (CME). The CME policy was rooted in the 1910 “FlexnerReport,” which recommended a limited medical education for Black students.

The AMA gave Queen’s Faculty of Medicine a “B” ranking five months after the resolution was passed. 

Thomas suggested a memo Connell sent on Jan. 4, 1918, motivated the Senate’s approval, which claimed “military hospital soldiers and patients in the community objected to receiving care from Black students.”

However, in April of 1918, the University’s West Indies Club wrote to the Acting Governor of Barbados to claim there “… ha[d] been not an instance on record of white patients objecting to being treated in any way by them.”

In his memo, Connell also wrote that equivalent resolutions were in practice at McGill University and the University of Toronto. This was false. 

As a result of the original policy, some students were forced to transfer, whereas others had to abandon their education altogether. 

“The Black medical students remaining at Queen’s were subjected to racial harassment as a consequence of the Senate’s officially sanctioned racism spill[ing] over into the behaviours of AMS executives, The Queen’s Journal and staff, and other students at large.” Thomas said. 

The resolution was revisited in 1928, when the Faculty of Medicine voted to expand the enrollment ban to encompass any student of African descent. This policy was enforced until 1965.

A Discrimination Committee implemented by the then-Graduate Student Society approached the Dean of Medicine in 1964, inquiring about the rumoured ‘colour bar.’ 

The Dean assured them the practice had been discontinued but refused to release statistics on enrollment of non-white students. There was no formal resolution to the ban. 

“Our institutional history of this event has been based for the last 100 years, or so entirely, on Connell’s memo,” Thomas said. “The university’s long-lived account of the 1918 expulsions absolved the Senate, ignored the consequences and anonymized the students.”

In an interview with The Journal after his Senate presentation, Thomas said “[The] fact of the matter is these weren’t expulsions. This was a ban that was enacted on the books.” 

“The institution’s framing of it is really mostly about a kind of blanket absolution and a kind of curated forgetting. It’s very important for us to understand our history, not as institutional myth—but as a pretty complex narrative that helps us understand our present.”

Thomas added his research has shown the University’s understanding of the history to be incorrect. Despite this, he called support for his motion “good news.”

“If we want to continue to build the institution into something even greater than what it is, we have to be very aware of [the] past and we have to be able to learn from it.”

 

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