As a Black Girl in the Segregated South, I Was Told I Would Never Become a Doctor. Then an Educator Changed My Life.

By Lynette Charity

January 20, 2021

Sometimes, a small gift can change someone’s life forever. For me, that gift came in 1969 in the form of a Greyhound bus ticket. 

That day, I came home from school feeling utterly defeated. Earlier in the day I had approached the college admissions counselor at my high school, brimming with confidence and excited to tell her about my plan to become a doctor.

In her office, I had asked if she would help me apply to college. Her response wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear. 

“Lynette, why on earth do you want to go to college?” she asked in her Southern drawl, her eyes peering at me from behind cat-eye glasses. .

“Well,” I said, “Because I need to go to college before I can go to medical school.”

She seemed stunned. “College? Medical School? Now, you might be able to get into one of those Negro colleges, but no medical school’s gonna take a colored girl!” she admonished me.

After weathering her rejection in silence, I trudged my way through the white neighborhood between the newly integrated high school and my home in the projects. I took care to dodge the sideways glances and snarky comments from white adults standing on their porches. If on most days I wanted to be left alone, that day I wished I would disappear.  

As I approached my house, my mom, dressed in capri pants and a sleeveless top in the sweltering heat, rushed out the door to greet me.

“Lynette! A woman just called from a college in Pittsburgh. She wants you to come to her college for an interview. I told her that we don’t have any money to send you to Pittsburgh and she said ‘We will send Lynette a bus ticket.’ You hear that Lynette? She’s gonna send you a bus ticket!” my mom announced.

This was my chance. I was going to make Ben Casey proud. 

*

Ben Casey was the main character in a TV medical drama that I adored watching on my parent’s 19” Black and White Philco TV. Played by actor Vince Edwards, the first time I saw Ben Casey on the screen I swooned: his dark eyes, dark hair and brooding look connected with me as a dark eyed, dark haired, brooding colored girl. In every episode, it was as if I could hear him say to me, “Lynette you’re going to be a doctor!” In my child’s imagination, he said that to me straight through the TV, and I heard him. Every time I watched the show, I would turn to my mom and say “Mama, I’m gonna be a doctor!”

“That’s nice, child,” she would reply. 

One afternoon I came home from school to find a toy doctor’s kit on my bed. It had a blood pressure cuff, a reflex hammer, a stethoscope and a fake syringe. I was grinning from ear to ear as I opened it and began to play.

At that time, it had been a long while since I had been truly happy. My mother once told me that I lost my smile the day my two-year-old sister, Beverly, got hit by a car and died. I didn’t find that smile again until three years later when Ben Casey appeared on my screen at the age of nine. 

Dr. Casey helped people. And that’s what I wanted to do, too. I hadn’t been able to save my sister as she lie in the street, crushed and bloodied by a car, but maybe someday I could save another little colored girl who needed help.

For years, that thought consumed me. It pushed me to excel in school, to bury my nose in books and to do what my granny called “Pay them no nevermind.” I paid no nevermind to the students who teased me; no nevermind to teachers who accused me of cheating when I got high marks; no nevermind to the white adults on their white porches casting disparaging looks as I walked to and from the integrated high school. 

Despite the hostility of the surrounding neighborhood, I was glad I had chosen to go to the school. When the schools in Portsmouth, Virginia integrated in 1966, I forged my mother’s signature on the transfer slip to make sure I got in. By that time, it had been 12 years since Brown vs Board of Education, and I’d heard the books were better at the white schools. 

When I started at the integrated high school my mother feared for my well-being. She knew the stories of Ruby Bridges in New Orleans and the Little Rock 9 in Little Rock, Arkansas. But I was determined that their stories would not be my story. I had to go to that high school, in spite of the news. Ben Casey couldn’t have been wrong.

And it turned out Ben Casey wasn’t wrong—thanks to one little gift from the woman who called our house that day.  

*

That woman’s name was Peggy Donaldson, the Admissions Director at Chatham College for Women in Pittsburgh. I received the bus ticket she sent during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. The ride from Portsmouth to Pittsburgh took 20 hours, with lots of stops along the way. I finally arrived at the Pittsburgh bus depot around 11pm on a Friday night. 

Peggy Donaldson and her sidekick Nancy Hofsoos were waiting for me when I arrived. They took me back to Chatham College and got me settled in. I couldn’t see very much in the dark, but when morning arrived, I looked out the window of the dorm room where I was housed and thought, “Trees. So many trees.” There was no such greenery in my neighborhood. 

I got dressed and was introduced to a student who was charged with giving me a tour. As we walked past the dorms—stately mansions that once were the homes of notable Pittsburgh families with names like Mellon, Rae and Laughlin—I stared at them in awe. These were, at one time, single-family homes that now housed 600 women students.

As we walked past the dorms—stately mansions that once were the homes of notable Pittsburgh families with names like Mellon, Rae and Laughlin—I stared at them in awe. These were, at one time, single-family homes that now housed 600 women students.

Close your mouth, Lynette, I thought. They gonna think you ain’t got no sense. My granny would say that to me when she’d catch me daydreaming with my mouth open. She’d say “Girl, you ain’t got no sense. Shut your mouth before a fly moves in.” 

After passing the dorms and visiting the cafeteria and several classrooms, my tour guide took me to meet Ms. Donaldson for my interview. Ms. Donaldson was in her office sitting at a very large, dark wood desk. There were papers everywhere. She looked up and smiled when I entered.

“So Lynette, how do you like the campus? Is this a college you’d like to attend?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am, but my daddy can’t afford to send me here.” I replied. (In 1969, tuition to Chatham College for Women cost $3000 per year. My dad made $6000 annually. Do the math.)

“Lynette, I didn’t ask you about money. Do you want to go to Chatham?” she said. The smile had left her face but her tone reassured me that everything was okay.

“Yes ma’am.”

And with that, I returned home the next day with an acceptance letter as a member of Chatham College for Women’s Class of 1974—and a four-year academic scholarship.

*

When I started my last year of high school  that fall, I paraded around the school showing off my acceptance letter. I made it a point to show great exuberance whenever my college admissions counselor passed by or when I passed the school office.

“I’m going to college! I got a scholarship! I’m going to live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I’m going to be a doctor!” I said proudly to anyone who would listen.

That year, 1970, I was again a straight-A student at my high school. As a senior with all A’s, I didn’t have to take any final exams. I no longer had a need for any guidance. I spent exam time reading and re-reading my acceptance letter and learning everything I could about Pittsburgh, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. (I wasn’t much into hockey, so I didn’t brush up on the Pittsburgh Penguins.)

After graduating high school with honors, my mom and I went to an Army/Navy store and bought me a trunk. I filled it with all of my worldly possessions and sent it on to Chatham so it would be there when I arrived. 

In the fall of 1970, I took another bus trip, this time one-way. When I arrived on campus, I met my new roommate, Cathy, a girl from Mount Lebanon, PA. She was white.  

Prior to the start of the school year, Chatham had sent out a questionnaire that included the question: “Would you be willing to room with a student NOT of your race?” Well, I said yes and I guess Cathy had said yes because there we were, roommates. And we roomed together for three out of the four years we attended Chatham. We’ve remained friends for the past 50 years. 

I graduated with honors and a double major in Biology-Chemistry from Chatham in 1974. I then attended Tufts University School of Medicine where I received my diploma as a Doctor of Medicine in 1978.

Looking back, it never fails to amaze me how sometimes a small gift, such as a bus ticket, can change someone’s life forever. It certainly changed mine. 

Author note: Many thanks to granny, my mother, Peggy Donaldson and the other marvelous women at Chatham college for supporting my endeavors. Without them, I could have never proved the dream smashers wrong. 

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Dr. Lynette Charity is retired Board-Certified Anesthesiologist, physician speaker and humorist.