In honor of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the Medical College of Georgia, Jagwire presents the story of Dr. David Ronald “Ron” Spearman, a member of the third integrated class in the the college’s history. Written by Karen Gutmann and Danielle Wong Moores, the story was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of the university’s alumni magazine. To view the story as it appeared in the magazine, click here. For information about The Journey to Health Equity: The Role of Ethnic Diversity, a signature event recognizing the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University’s first black students, read this post.
By 1970, the Civil Rights Act had been law of the land in the United States for six years, and the worst of the violence and upheaval surrounding its enactment seemed largely in the past.
But Augusta’s worst episode of racial violence was yet to come.
In May of that year, a mentally challenged African American teenager named Charles Oatman was murdered while incarcerated in the county jail. His wounds didn’t square with official explanations, and long-simmering racial tensions erupted in riots that spread over 130 downtown Augusta blocks. The riots ended by the next morning, leaving six black men dead and about 300 protesters arrested.
“Yes, the smoke was still in the air,” said Dr. David Ronald “Ron” Spearman (MD ’74), of his arrival in Augusta from Atlanta’s Morehouse College less than a month later.
Spearman moved to Augusta to enter the Medical College of Georgia in only the third integrated class in the college’s history. Two African-American students started at the medical school in 1967, two in 1969, and seven in 1970 out of a class of 136.
Despite the recent local events, Spearman’s experiences entering MCG were positive.
“The best description I can give is that there was an overall environment of mutual curiosity,” he said.
Sincere gestures of collegiality and social inclusion counterbalanced the isolated incidents of intolerance and skepticism. Spearman developed a strong bond with MCG that continues to this day.
In many ways, Spearman was a pioneer: He was the first African-American to complete the Internal Medicine Residency, the first African-American Chief Resident in the program, the first to join the Internal Medicine faculty—and one of the first students and the first African-American to serve as a voting member of the Student Admissions Committee for the School of Medicine.
Steadily Blazing Trails
As for Dr. Barbara Spearman (DMD ’75), she remembers a schoolmate in a high school French class telling her she wanted to become a dentist. Barbara’s initial thought was, “Females are not dentists.” She was almost right—in 1970 only 1 percent of dental students in the U.S. were women.
But that didn’t stop her.
Barbara earned her chemistry degree at Paine College. Then, in June 1972, she entered the College of Dental Medicine as one of five women and one of eight African-Americans in her class of approximately 60.
The dental program at the time was experimenting with a three-year program to produce dentists more quickly in the face of shortages. Though successful, the school soon returned to a four-year program.
That makes Dr. Barbara Spearman one of only a handful of dentists in the U.S. who successfully earned her credentials in only three years.
“The Rest is History”
But before that—shortly after she arrived on campus—Barbara attended a dorm party. When Ron, then a third-year medical student, spotted her, he doubled back so that they would have to pass each other in the narrow hallway. Pretty smooth—until a flustered Barbara bumped into the wall while she was looking at him.
“The rest is history,” said Barbara with a laugh. They went on to marry and recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary.
After graduation, Ron served on MCG’s faculty before opening a private internal medicine practice in Augusta in 1984. After nearly a quarter century in successful practice, he moved to the Augusta VA hospital, where he provides care to patients in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit.
Barbara graduated and established a successful dental practice on Laney Walker Boulevard—between her two alma maters—from which she recently retired.
A Legacy of Progress
The couple made Augusta their home, where their two children were born, Vanessa in 1979 and David Ronald II in 1981.
“When I went into private practice, they were still young,” said Ron. “We staggered our schedules so that one of us was usually with them. One of the things I’m proudest of is we made every concert, every event” while their children were growing up.
David began college as an honors premedical student. Then in 2003, along with hundreds of college students from across the country, he entered an American Idol-styled acting competition called the “Soap Star Screen Test.”
He won—garnering almost half the votes in a final field of five. With his family squarely behind him, he moved to New York City to claim his prize: a role on CBS’s iconic soap opera “Guiding Light.” Today he is co-founder and Creative Director of Foray Filmworks LLC in Atlanta, Ga.
Continuing the Tradition
Early exposure to her parents’ careers sparked Vanessa’s interest in the medical field. But it was her participation in MCG’s seven-week Student Educational Enrichment Program (SEEP) that caused her to set her sights on MCG, which she had initially dismissed as an option.
Today Dr. Vanessa Spearman (MD ’05) is an assistant professor at Augusta University and is double boarded in psychiatry and internal medicine. She not only oversees her own internal medicine practice, but also works with inpatients as the Director of Consultation Liaison Psychiatry.
Vanessa is proud of her parents and proud of her alma mater: Her parents “having a child who is now a faculty member of the same department speaks volumes for the success of integration at MCG,” she said.
And there may be another generation of doctors in the making. When grandson David Ronald Spearman III was asked in kindergarten to dress up as his future career choice, he donned the white coat of an MCG physician.
Watch Dr. Ron Spearman and other trailblazers from the Medical College of Georgia.