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Overcoming racial discrimination: One person’s story

A conversation with Professor Faye Gary

As we examine the roots of racial inequality in education and the labor market, we have heard from Professor Dan O’Flaherty about what economics research shows and from Richard Rothstein about how residential segregation contributes to this inequality. For a more personal perspective on these topics, I spoke with Professor Faye Gary, a department chair and University Professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve University here in Cleveland, Ohio. She leads The Provost Scholars, a program that pairs high school students with university mentors to improve academic and career outcomes. While part of our conversation focused on her mentoring program, Professor Gary also told me about how she encountered racism and discrimination during her education.

Professor Gary studied nursing at Florida A&M University, a historically Black university. She noted that, as a Black student, she was not allowed to attend Florida State University, despite the fact that it was just next door. During our conversation, she described her experience navigating graduate studies and a career in nursing as her path led her from segregated Black environments to segregated white environments.

As Professor Gary described the moments during which racism and discrimination threatened her progress, I reflected on the contributions society would have missed out on had her accomplishments been prevented. Professor Gary’s story shows the benefits of economic inclusion—how we all benefit when more people are able to fully participate in the labor market. Her story is also a personal example that shows the types of barriers that have kept people from fully participating in the economy. I was encouraged to hear about the ways that affirmation and solidarity helped her overcome the obstacles in her path. While today’s environment is not the same as the one that Professor Gary faced, her story offers lessons on how we all can do a better job of removing obstacles so that more people can reach their potential—to their own benefit and that of our economy.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

Professor Gary grew up in the South with a rural perspective

Dionissi Aliprantis

You have a really compelling life story, and I'm wondering if you could tell us about that. All these accomplishments, all these contributions to medicine and to our society, I don't think it was easy for you to get there so I'm hoping you can tell us a little bit about that.

Faye Gary

I grew up in the rural south and I had a rural perspective, which I think was very helpful for me. We did not have any close neighbors.  My mother got her college degree when I was in about eighth grade. But a long time ago in the South, if you passed some kind of examination after eighth or 10th grade, you could become a teacher. My mother was the seventh of 13 children, and I'm convinced now that all of them were gifted in some way.

My father was a hardworking farmer. And we lived with my grandfather, who was a phenomenal man. He died when I was about 10 years of age, but he taught me and my oldest sister how to read. He was our babysitter. We didn't have babysitters, we stayed home with Papa. We would get on Papa's horse, and the horse's name was Ida. I would be in the back and my sister Junie would be in the front and we would go across the farm, check the fence, check the cows, check the pigs, and go and see his neighbors and be back.

But at all times we tended to be in the midst of the family activities. Now I must say that during my era, there was no television, no telephone, and certainly no internet. So the interactions and communications were with families and neighbors, and I must say with the animals. Animals played a dominant part in our lives because that's the way we made our living. That's how we generated our food.

I understood the seasons by what was being planted and what was being harvested. So I lived very close to nature and I understood climate and climate change long before it came into the vocabularies of other people. I think my father checked the weather by looking up at the sky and saying a prayer just about every morning. So we were very cognizant about the sun, the rain, the dew, the fog, the hurricanes, et cetera, et cetera. Always a great appreciation for nature because we knew that the seeds would sprout if the stars aligned. They did align quite often, and we were always appreciative of nature and of the gifts that we were given. My grandfather would say that we all were given gifts that we did not deserve, but it was through mercy and grace that we received these gifts.

I feel the same way now. It's mercy and grace that I've been able to accomplish anything. I'm awfully grateful to many, many people for those opportunities.

Segregation shaped Professor Gary’s education and her work experience

Faye Gary

I'm a graduate of Florida A&M University, which is in Tallahassee. And interestingly, Florida A&M is about five or six blocks from Florida State University. You might know Florida State University as the Seminoles. But we were not allowed on their campus. Florida A&M University was Florida's university for its Black citizens, and that's how our administration was sometimes introduced to the general public.

So all of my college classmates, all of the faculty, staff, et cetera, were Black. And we were not allowed to go uptown in Tallahassee in a group. We had to go two people, not more than three people. A critical mass was very threatening to the powers-that-be in Florida at that time, and perhaps to a lesser degree, or more subtly, even now.

So we managed to traverse all of that. We had a Black hospital, Florida A&M University Hospital, and all of the patients there were Black. All of the nurses were Black. We had one or two physicians who would come there to care for Black patients on a certain day. All total, there must have been five or six physicians who were associated with the hospital. Now I make that point because I graduated from nursing school, not ever having touched a white patient, never.

So before I went to Chicago, I went to Syracuse, New York because I couldn't get a job in Florida, except that Florida A&M had a job opening, and I worked at a TB hospital for a brief period of time. They were beginning to close TB hospitals because it was becoming an outpatient phenomenon. So when I got to Syracuse, I was asked if I would work in the intensive care unit. All of the patients were white. All of the nurses were white. All of the doctors were white. And then I walked into this room and I said to myself, "My God, I don't know what to do. I've never cared for a white patient. What am I to do?" And my mother in her wisdom would say, "If you don't know, Faye baby, just keep your mouth shut. Nobody needs to know that you don't know."

So my mother's words echoed. I kept my mouth shut, and I observed, and I said, "Oh my goodness, they take the blood pressures the same way. My goodness of life, the science and symptoms for X disease are the same. You cough and deep breathe and you record your clinical data the same way. I can't believe this. What were they depriving us from? What was the intent of having all of this segregation back home?" So after about a week or two, I could take care of white patients, and no one ever knew my struggle. No one ever knew my fear and my struggle. I kept my mouth shut.

Affirmation from both Black and white mentors was important to Professor Gary’s success under segregation

Faye Gary

And so after I left Syracuse, I came back home, couldn't find a job. And I could not get accepted into white schools in the south. So I got on the Greyhound bus and I went to Chicago and I went to a wonderful place called St. Xavier College. It's now a university. And at the time I was there it was an all women's Irish Catholic college. I was frightened to death. I had worked at the VA in Chicago, and that's how I learned about it, but I was frightened to death. And I got there and I was welcomed. I was told that I couldn't have a roommate because I needed to study. The Dean assigned me a carrel, and she gave me my marching orders. She told me "Here you can be as successful as anyone else. All you need to do is let us know how we can help you." And for some strange reason, I believed her.

St. Xavier University was a metamorphosis in my life in terms how I relate to people, the extent to which I could trust and care for people, which had never been an experience that I'd had with white people, regardless of whom they were. I also learned that my thinking and my potential was as good as anybody else's. I'd never gotten that affirmation. We were always told that we were second-class and we could never do, we could never be, et cetera, et cetera.  We read about it. The kinds of snares that came at us. You have to remember that in Ocala we could not go to the library. I drank colored water. We could not go to the toilet. So we always had a little pot in the car. That was the kind of experience that I had. So to be in a place where you were reaffirmed, despite the color of your skin and your historical perspective, was very, very reaffirming to me.

Dionissi Aliprantis

It's a pretty incredible story. I'm just curious when you talk about your childhood and all the messages you were receiving about the fact that you couldn't perform at the same level. How much time and how much affirmation did it take for you to really kind of deep down... I think at some point it's inevitable that you kind of question yourself, right?... How much affirmation did it take and how much almost, just kind of “experience of being in those contexts,” did it take for you to really deep down understand that you could perform at that same level in a very deep way?

Faye Gary

Well, I could answer that on two levels. At my high school, we were affirmed and our teachers would tell us that we were as good as anybody else, what was missing was our opportunity. And when I got to FAMU, when everybody was Black, I met some students that I would consider to be geniuses. They were genius musicians, genius thinkers, genius scientists, genius dancers, genius everything. And so all of us collectively knew that at some level, this was a sham. Because genius is genius and it's distributed, I think, equally across the world. And that's what we were told, but we had no way to test it out because we were in this Black bubble.

So when I got to Syracuse, I learned that what I'd learned in nursing school with four or five doctors, and two or three or four nurses, and a total census in the hospital of 50. But I had learned the basics of what it takes to be a nurse and I passed the state board exam. That we had gone farther with much less than our white counterparts. And so I think we took some pride in that, that we'd gone farther with far less resources than our white counterparts.

Now we didn't know how to articulate that at the time, but I think that was a driver for us. So when I got to St. Xavier, I had to unconsciously test out all of these belief systems that had been stored in me. But in one of my classes where I was supposed to take a seminar, I didn't open my mouth for the entire semester. I took copious notes and my head was always down. And believe it or not, no one ever called on me. No one ever said, " Faye, what do you think?" My teacher never called on me, and I have concluded that they must have known that I was petrified.

I made all A's, got on the Greyhound bus and came home to Florida. Went back on the Greyhound bus, and I was late there because of a snowstorm.  But at the meantime, my professor had called my home in Florida to find out where I was, and that's when I knew they really cared about me. I got back to school with all of my A's, with my sense that they cared about me, and I maxed everything and have never stopped talking yet.

Later on in my career I was able to make connections without any fear or any hesitation because of my experience at St. Xavier, where I had learned to trust other perspectives and other life perspectives, and the genius that I had been exposed to at Florida A&M university, because we reinforced each other and we told each other “Girl, are you smart!," or "You've got it going on!," or whatever.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Well, something that I think sounds really important from your story is this sense of creating places where, even though maybe the outside world isn't so supportive in some of these places, we can create supportive environments for kids to grow up.

Faye Gary

Absolutely. And they work every time. And they are transferable from one system to the other.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Faye Gary
Faye Gary

Distinguished University Professor
Case Western Reserve University

Professor Faye Gary is a Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University. She is a faculty member in the Bolton School of Nursing as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and a faculty associate at the Schubert Center for Child Studies. She holds a secondary appointment in the department of psychiatry in the School of Medicine at Case Western. She earned an MS in children’s psychiatric nursing and adolescent anthropology from Saint Xavier University and an EdD in special education and anthropology from the University of Florida. Dr. Gary is a founding director of the Provost Scholars Program, a partnership between Case Western and East Cleveland City Schools to improve the academic outcomes of middle and high school students through academic-related activities at Case Western and mentoring relationships with faculty and staff volunteers.

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