Black History Month is an opportunity to recognize the contributions of African American trailblazers in our School of Medicine and the obstacles they overcame to become leaders in the medical field. We appreciate that Yvonnecris Smith Veal, M.D., was frank with us about her experience, telling us about both the good and the bad. We hope our readers will learn from Dr. Veal’s story as we have.
Yvonnecris Smith Veal always knew that she wanted to be a doctor from her earliest pre-school years.
Though she’d never actually met one in her predominantly Black community, she’d seen the way her grandmother cared for the neighbors, healing their illnesses and ailments. It wasn’t until after her grandmother’s death that she looked in her grandmother’s family Bible “bigger than a Webster’s dictionary, and found my grandmother’s licensed practical nurse certificate,” said Veal. She had her explanation: “That is why people were always coming to grandmother’s house when they were sick or having a baby.”
Texas court case paves way
The Class of 1962’s Yvonnecris Smith Veal, M.D., at Richmond’s Mosque Theater accepting her diploma from Col. John Heil, Jr., and MCV President R. Blackwell Smith, Jr.
That Veal would go on to earn her medical degree with the Medical College of Virginia’s Class of 1962 was a feat made possible by a 1950 federal court case decided in Texas. The Sweat v Painter decision declared Texas’ “separate but equal” approach to providing law education for Black students as illegal. The case had reverberations in Virginia, where African American students with an interest in medicine were sent out of state for their medical education, some to historically Black colleges like Meharry and Howard Universities and others to institutions in the Northeast that accepted African Americans. Within months of the Texas decision, the MCV Board of Visitors declared that race would no longer be used in admissions decisions to deny admittance to African American students.
They honored that pledge in 1951, admitting Jean Harris as the medical school’s first Black student. Her graduation four years later was celebrated on the cover of Ebony magazine. Nevertheless in 1957, when Veal was applying to medical schools, only about half of Southern schools accepted Black students.
MCV’s position on educating Black and white medical students together was ahead of its time in a state where the Byrd machine’s campaign of Massive Resistance was gaining momentum. 1959 would see some localities shut down public schools rather than integrate.
So when Veal arrived in Richmond in 1957, she found a campus whose climate was in flux, driven in part oddly enough by academic considerations. MCV was under pressure to assemble a full-time faculty and no longer rely solely on community physicians who could devote only a part of their time to teaching students. As these new faculty recruits arrived on campus, many – like transplant pioneer David Hume – were from out-of-state and incredulous at the Richmond community’s continued segregation.
Segregation persists in MCV’s hospitals into the 1960s
Despite these changing attitudes, MCV Hospitals wouldn’t fully integrate until 1965, when the federal Office of Civil Rights leveraged newly passed Medicare legislation to gain the hospital’s compliance. In the years Veal would spend in Richmond, the Civil Rights movement was gaining traction. Nearby Greensboro, NC, became known for successful sit-ins that would gradually move the city to accept integration.
Perhaps bolstered by that success, activists would stage a 1960 sit-in at the lunch counter of Thalhimer’s – a Richmond department store just down the street from the MCV Campus. But throughout Veal’s time in medical school, patients would continue to be segregated according to race, with West and E.G. Williams hospitals treating mainly white patients and St. Philips Hospital for Black patients.
At her admissions interview, Veal says, she had felt comfortable in this segregated city and – to varying degrees – its segregated hospital. She was glad for the chance to work toward her dream of becoming a physician. It wouldn’t be an easy path.
The first challenge was born of her living situation. Dormitories were segregated, and so she roomed with Hampton University nurses who came to Richmond for their clinical rotations. While they befriended Veal, they were unable to serve as the study partner she so wanted and needed.
With just one other Black male in her incoming class, she sensed her separateness in lectures, too. She found herself testing classmates who she thought were racist. “Those I felt didn’t want to be near my skin, I’d sit near them in the lecture hall to see if I was on target.” But her second-year physical medicine class held the biggest obstacle in the form of a final exam that she failed. Her professor “wouldn’t give me the courtesy of a repeat examination,” she recalled. She later learned that a Black woman the previous year had suffered the same fate. They both had to repeat their entire second year.
Memorable experiences on the clinical wards
She felt a marked improvement when she started third-year rotations. Though the hospitals were not yet integrated, Veal was allowed to see patients in West and E.G. Williams hospitals as well as in St. Philips.
“Third year was better because we were in small groups of 10. You could talk to people without intimidating them, without being intimidated.” And she was confident, as she looked around her team, that anyone who didn’t want to train with her had already weeded themselves out.
Her team also did a month-long community health rotation. Off-campus, the 10 students would face new challenges in segregated Richmond. She recalls her teammates telling her: “We’re going to be out all day, eating together. If we tell you we’re going to leave, just go along with it. We have your back.” Sometimes they did choose to leave restaurants, simply remarking “They don’t have what we want here.”
“They did look out for me,” Veal says.
Surprises surfaced on campus too – sometimes from unexpected quarters. “On the wards, they called us doctor,” said Veal, who was unmarried at the time and known as Dr. Smith. “On the Internal Medicine service, there was a Black woman. And no matter when I went into her room, she always called me Miss Smith. She always thought I was a nurse. No malice. No harm. I’m sure she’d never seen a Black doctor,” Veal chuckles at the memory.
It’s harder to laugh at another situation that occurred on the surgery rotation. Veal was assigned a new patient, a white man whose family was gathered around his bed. The attending physician asked them to leave so Veal could take a full history and physical, and she felt good about the relationship she established with her new patient. But later, a nurse tracked her down. “The family requested that I not be the patient’s doctor.” Veal understood; after all, she said, “It’s up to the patient and the patient’s family.” She waited to get her next assignment from the attending. But when he returned to the floor, he instead spoke with the patient, who reversed his family’s decision. Veal remembers the attending telling her ‘I am very delighted to tell you that the patient wants you. He doesn’t want anyone else.’”
“I’ll never forget those two experiences.”
Exit interview casts pall over final days on campus
Those memories and others like them, Veal recalls in light of advice from her mother who told her “always look for the good even in the bad.”
That’s what she had to do when she was called in to the Dean’s office in 1962 for what she thought was a routine exit interview. She says she answered his questions about her experiences candidly, but deliberately chose to present her experiences in a favorable light. As their meeting drew to a close, Veal was astonished by the news he delivered. “He said that the Board of Visitors had decided the social climate in the area would not allow Black students to attend anything but baccalaureate and the graduation ceremony.” Veal and the other Black student in the Class of 1962 wouldn’t be invited to other graduation activities like the senior dinner or the dance sponsored by the alumni association.
She remembers her feeling of surprise that afternoon and thinking: “At this point in my life, it’s sort of unbelievable. I’ve gone through all these years. We’ve had no conflicts. I think I’ve known my place. I’ve been respectful.”
And so that’s when she shared the rest of the story with the Dean. Her experiences with classmates who didn’t want to sit near her in the lecture hall. And how the physical medicine teacher caused her to repeat her second year, just as he’d done with a Black female student the previous year.
But then she called to mind her mother’s advice and decided “I’ll put this out of my system because I don’t want negativity to affect me. I appreciate the education I received here.”
She heard that her classmates met and declared that they wouldn’t attend any of the graduation activities if she weren’t invited. And she also heard that the Board of Visitors reversed its decision. But she never received an invitation to the other activities. And she never made plans to attend.
Instead she looked forward to walking across the stage at the Richmond’s Mosque Theater to receive her diploma. She keeps a photograph that captures that moment.
Specialty training opens door to New York and 47-year career
Veal had gotten her first choice of residency destinations: Kings County in New York, where she had been told she’d accumulate a wealth of experience and get a complete education. The promise held true, and she was launched into a career as a pediatrician that took a number of turns. She thrived in leadership roles in public health and with the U.S. Postal Service where she spent two dozen years. Named senior medical director in 1993, Veal was responsible for the occupational health and safety of over 80,000 postal workers throughout New York and New Jersey as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The September 11 terrorist attacks happened on her watch and she remained in leadership in their wake. She dealt not only with the growing threat of anthrax sent via U.S. mail but with confirmed exposures that closed two facilities. In recognition of her leadership, Veal received the USPS National Medical Directors Award in 1997 and again in 2002.
Her accomplishments also led to her inclusion in an exhibit organized by the NIH called Changing the Face of Medicine. The exhibit was on display at the National Library of Medicine from 2003 through 2005. An adaption of the exhibit later traveled the U.S. until late in 2010, including a stop on the MCV Campus.
For the exhibition, Veal recounted her time at MCV and particularly those days leading up to graduation. She told her interviewer, “That let me know that the struggle certainly was not over.”
She decided to take up her part in the struggle through the National Medicine Association, an organization devoted to the interests of physicians and patients of African descent. Her work with the organization spanned her entire medical career and continues now, in retirement. Her service to the organization included a one-year term as president and serving as the first woman named to chair its Board of Trustees.
Through it all, her chief goal was membership. “Doctors have become disenfranchised. They have forgotten that there’s power in unity.”
She continues to see and advocate for the benefits of working together toward goals that are important to them all.
A message from Dr. Veal
“I’ve always felt I received a great education at MCV, with a key to my success being knowledge. Knowledge, in fact, is power. My MCV education was not confined to science, but encompassed a much broader spectrum including Respect in both personal and professional relationships.
Whatever we try to accomplish in life, in some manner or measure, should support others. We support others by paving a way for them to follow and by enriching our environment in terms of being a good example.
My parents told me:
For true success, and to be the best you can be, look to GOD to direct your Head, Heart and Hands in all you do.
Always: aim high – hit hard – and look for the good in everything because good is there.
Don’t take away stumbling blocks, just move around them.
Peace and blessings to all.”
Since this story was originally published on the VCU School of Medicine website in 2013, Dr. Veal was honored with two awards recognizing her lifetime achievements in the field of medicine. In May 2014, she was recognized with the Pinnacle Award from Region One of the National Medical Association. The association is the largest and oldest national organization predominantly representing physicians and patients of African American descent and other minorities. In March 2016, she received the Legacy Award from The Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society. The society carries the name of McKinney who, in 1869, was the first African American woman in New York – and the third in the U.S. – to earn a medical degree.