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Queen’s University moves to right historic wrong

Principal Daniel Woolf and Dean Richard Reznick formally apologize for school’s 1918 ban of Black medical students.

  • A century after banning admission of Black students to its medical school, Queen’s University has extended a formal letter of apology.
    Principal and Vice Chancellor Daniel Woolf and Dean of Health Sciences Richard Reznick sign the formal letter of apology during the meeting of Queen's University Senate on Tuesday, April 16. (University Communications)
  • Dean of Health Sciences Richard Reznick
    Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences Richard Reznick makes a presentation after signing a formal letter of apology for the 1918 ban on admission of Black students to Queen's University's medical school. (University Communications)
  • Edward Thomas, Daniel Bartholomew
    Present at the signing ceremony was Daniel Bartholomew, centre, son of Ethelbert Bartholomew – an upper-year student whose medical career was abruptly ended by the policy in 1918. (University Communications)

A century after banning admission of Black students to its medical school, Queen’s University has extended a formal letter of apology acknowledging the institution’s past racist actions and repeated failures to hold itself accountable. In an official ceremony, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf and Dean of Health Sciences Richard Reznick signed the letter and expressed profound regret on behalf of the institution for injustices enacted upon its Black medical students, alumni, and prospective applicants.

“We are resolved to confront our past actions, and to more fully understand the meaning of the university’s historical racism, including a commitment to identify its causes and consequences to the best of our ability,” reads the formal apology issued by Principal Woolf and Dean Reznick. “In reckoning with our institutional history, we are committed to acknowledging our failures and to learning from our mistakes. It is our sincere desire to confront this past, learn from it, and never again repeat it.”

In 1918, the Senate of Queen’s University voted to support a motion prohibiting students of African descent from attending its medical school, at the request of the Faculty of Medicine – a ban that went enforced until 1965. According to recent research by Queen’s PhD candidate, Edward Thomas, the ban was put in place to demonstrate alignment with discriminatory policies favoured at the time by the American Medical Association, the organization that ranked medical schools in North America.

Even after 1965, archival evidence suggests the historical facts of the ban were misrepresented by the university when confronted with the issue in 1978, 1986, and 1988. In 2018, once Mr. Thomas presented his research findings to the current Queen’s Senate and brought to light the motion’s continued existence, the university formally rescinded the resolution that enabled the ban.

“As an institution, we can never undo the harm that we caused to generations of Black students, and we have to accept that our actions contributed to the inequities in the medical profession that still exist today,” wrote Dr. Reznick in a blog post published in advance of the ceremony. “I hope, though, that our actions will continue to move the School of Medicine in the direction of greater inclusivity, diversity, and equity.”

The public apology marked the first in a series of necessary steps identified by a commission of Queen’s faculty, students, and staff formed by Dean Reznick to address this historic injustice. Family members of individuals affected by the ban will receive personal letters of apology, and the School of Medicine will soon house an exhibit addressing the ban and its impacts. Course curricula will place greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusivity, and a symposium examining the past, present, and future of the Black medical student experience is being organized for Winter 2020.

The School of Medicine established a mentorship program in March 2019, through which Black faculty members have volunteered to serve as mentors to Black medical students enrolled at Queen’s as they progress through clerkship, residency, and into the medical profession. The school has also created an admissions award for Black Canadian students entering into the first year of undergraduate medical education. Recipients will be awarded up to $10,000, based on academic achievement and demonstrated financial need.

“The Faculty of Health Sciences has shown great leadership in righting this historical wrong, and I look forward to seeing the implementation of its new programs to support Black student success and diversity in the medical profession,” says Stephanie Simpson, Queen’s Associate Vice-Principal (Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion). “We owe much to the staff, faculty, students, and alumni who work tirelessly to ensure that this campus is a place where everyone feels welcomed, valued and respected, and able to participate without discrimination.”

For more detail on this matter and on the university’s future steps, read Dean Reznick’s blog post in full.