Black History: A Medical Perspective from Past to Present

Brian Williams, MD, is a trauma surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital and an Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. Williams essentially has three major roles overseeing surgeries, has a clinical role in the ICU and trains residents.

“I love to mentor,” said Williams.

Born in Massachusetts on an Air Force base, Williams would eventually follow in his father's footsteps and join the Air Force. He spent six years as an aeronautical engineer.

“For me, it was all about the planes," said Williams. "I wanted to be a pilot, so I went into the Air Force Academy for undergrad. I graduated there and spent  six years active duty in the Air Force then transitioned to medical school. I did medical school in Tampa Florida, my residency in Boston. I did seven years there and a fellowship in Atlanta, before coming to Dallas,” he said.

He did face challenges after going back to medical school. He found that there was a lack of African American male leadership in the medical profession.

“There was a dearth of African American role models that I could talk to about their careers in medicine. Every step of the way, from medical school to residency, to being a faculty, there was and is a shortage. That did not dissuade me from wanting to do the best I could, and to get the best training,” he said.

Williams decided to actively seek out ways to help other young aspiring students interested in medicine.

“I want them to understand that it is possible, with appropriate dedication, with some sacrifices. This profession is so gratifying,” he said.

According to the most recent reports, African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the American population, but only roughly two percent are in the field of medicine.

“Back in 1977, there were 525 black men that entered medical school. In 2014 there were 515. So, in 40 years, despite the explosion of medical schools and the number of positions, black men (as a demographic), have been decreasing. We need to ask ourselves why is that happening,” he said.

In regards to history, his roles and stature at both UT Southwestern Medical Center and Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas are significant. In 2008, the American Medical Association publicly apologized for aiding institutional racism, by omitting African American doctors, and for keeping silent during Civil Rights.

In 1868, African American doctors applied for membership with AMA and were denied. The medical association left, whether doctors would receive hospital privileges up to the state.

Under slave codes, and then Jim Crow, the state of Texas was adamant about maintaining segregation. White hospitals had segregated spaces for African Americans in the basement or attic. There were separate patient rooms, and the blood collected for the blood bank was separated as well.

St. Paul Hospital was replaced with Clements University Hospital at UT Southwestern Medical Center and was the first hospital to allow men of color to practice medicine inside of their facility. Five black doctors made history in Dallas. It took 11 years for the rest of Dallas to follow suit.

“We are still seeing the impact of country’s segregated past," Williams said. "People want a very simple answer as to why there are not more African Americans, particularly men, in the medical field, but there is so much involved. There are social economic issues, there are academic disparities. There is explicit and implicit bias. We have to target the problem at different levels. This is something that we as a culture need to honestly walk towards and address, as uncomfortable as that is and difficult, it will help us move forward,” he said.

Williams confronted his own feelings about race relations in our country on the night of July 7, 2016. He was working the night several Dallas Police officers were shot during a protest in downtown Dallas.

“That was a significant even in my life, and I still think about that every single day and I wonder how the families are doing,” he said.

Williams was forced to examine his identity as a person.

“I really looked at my identity as a black man in society. I looked at my identity as a trauma surgeon that deals with violence frequently. I served my country and I believe in ideals that encompass equality, justice, and opportunity, but I also recognize that it is not always deferred upon me, simply because of my skin color."

"When I look in the mirror I’m discorded with how others view me. So I have to reconcile those issues and move forward with my life.”

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