February 15, 2010


 Putting diversity into practice

SPECIAL ISSUE: DIVERSITY | Additional photos from this issue and a video interview are available here. See a timeline charting milestones in diversity.

"Some overadulate me as a black veterinarian; others look down their nose at me"

Posted Feb. 1, 2010  

Over 40 years ago two veterinarians, one black and one white, came together in veterinary practice, in their common cause of equality and inclusion and, soon, in a lasting friendship. 

A native of London, England, and 1948 graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, Dr. David A. Rickards was looking for a particular kind of associate. It was 1968, and Dr. Evan Morse had just graduated from Tuskegee University. 

Dr. Rickards began his Cleveland, Ohio, small animal practice in 1953 and won the AVMA Practitioner Research Award in 1977. Dr. Morse, a practice owner since 1972, won the Distinguished Service Award from the Ohio VMA in 2004 for his work in fostering "a veterinary community of inclusion." He also organizes the annual AVMA Veterinary Diversity Symposiums. Their story is told in their own words. 

 Holding one of their free animal clinics in Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood, Drs. David A. Rickards
(left) and Evan Morse examine a Bichon Frise.

When did you become an activist, Dr. Morse?

My student activism began in high school in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Our local NAACP chapter would drop off me and my friends. We would sit at a lunch counter for four-hour shifts, trying to be served. The waitress would walk right past us and never even ask us, "Do you want a glass of water?" For months we also picketed the two department stores in downtown Richmond to protest their practice of not hiring "Negroes" except to sweep floors.

When I got to Tuskegee in 1962 for my preveterinary studies, student unrest was happening across the country. Civil rights activists would come to Tuskegee to register African-Americans to vote. We personally knew Stokely Carmichael. I became a student activist trying to get voting rights for African-Americans and address the apartheid conditions. Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee, for example, are two separate cities. Tuskegee Institute was all black, and Tuskegee was all white. One of my dear friends, Sammy Younge, was the first African-American student killed in the civil rights movement. He was shot in the back when he tried to use the white bathroom at a gas station in Tuskegee. We marched on the town square in protest.

One of the most exhilarating experiences of my life was participating in the Selma to Montgomery March in '65 with Dr. Roscoe Moore (TUS '69). The marchers were trying to pressure the U.S. government to pass the Voting Rights Act, and it did pass in 1965. It was perilous times and a tough march, with a high risk of bodily harm. We marched a few rows behind Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harry Belafonte.

Describe your veterinary school class, Dr. Morse.

The Tuskegee class of '68 didn't have a single white veterinary student, only African-American, African, and Caribbean students. My class had 14 students, so we got a lot of practical experience. What the dean and faculty drilled into us was that we had to strive to be better than the white veterinarians. If we went to take the state board exam, we were probably going to be judged on a double standard. When we came into the veterinary world, we had to have superior skills because our intellectual knowledge was going to be microscopically examined to see if African-American veterinarians really could do this. We had to represent Tuskegee and the best of the black race in a professional manner. The Tuskegee veterinarians had to excel in veterinary medicine like the Tuskegee airmen excelled in warfare.

How did you come to practice with Dr. Rickards?

I was on my way to begin an internship in small animal medicine at the University of Illinois. I stopped to talk with Dr. Rickards after he called Tuskegee looking for an associate. We hit it off, and he recruited me here to Cleveland. I lived with him for months and became like a part of his family. His suburban location was far-removed from the black part of Cleveland, and it was months before I knew it existed.

Why did you call Tuskegee for an associate, Dr. Rickards?

It was a very interesting time in '66 and '67 with all kinds of upheaval on the political scene. I wanted to do something constructive and decided I'd better forge an allegiance with the black community. I put out feelers to conduct a free public clinic in the heart of Hough, where there'd been riots, and found resentment and hostility among certain politicians there. They didn't want a white man coming in and running a hospital. I thought it might make it easier to do this project if I worked with a black veterinarian, so I called Tuskegee and asked if they would recommend any particular graduate. They sent Dr. Morse. He was with me from 1968-1972 before he opened a practice of his own. We founded the Free Animal Clinic Team in 1977 and have been helping impoverished pet owners in the inner city of Cleveland ever since.

What sensitized you to diversity, Dr. Rickards?

I am open-minded and I believe in Humanism. I never paid much attention to people's skin color or their accent. I have never felt superior or inferior. In my experience, many white people have no relationship or experience with black people. People tend to look down on those they always see doing low-paying work. Then suddenly they meet a professional like Dr. Morse and find him an equal and quite delightful. Clients would say how glad they were I brought him here.

What obstacles and support came your way, Dr. Morse?

I did experience racial prejudice my first few years here. White guys would yell the N-word to me when I'd head to my car, and one night they slashed the convertible top on my car. When I'd walk into an exam room, some clients would turn around and walk out. But Dr. Rickards made it clear that I was competent and I was his choice. In four years we were able to get a lot of clients to have a change of heart, but there were people with an intense, deep-seated prejudice who would never accept a minority veterinarian.

Early on, there were numerous newspaper articles, and new clients, both black and white, would come distances to support a minority veterinarian. There are two types of clients—some overadulate me as a black veterinarian; others look down their nose at me, as a step above a kennel boy.

The white veterinarians in Cleveland came from similar backgrounds and socialized with each other. I did my best to cultivate relationships with colleagues. After 20 years I reached the presidency of the Cleveland Academy of Veterinary Medicine. I became chairman of the Ohio VMA Diversity Committee and a member of the AVMA Task Force on Diversity. I became involved culturally on boards of trustees—places such as the Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland Public Radio, and Cleveland Museum of Natural History. And I became president of the jazz society and the trout club.

How did you maintain diversity after Dr. Morse left?

My door is always open, and veterinarians of various backgrounds have gravitated toward me. Veterinarians from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Togo, and New Zealand have come and worked. I would help some of them study for their boards, and they would help me with nail trims, ear cleaning, and such. That's not to say everything was a bed of roses. I've had some disappointments.

Talk about recruitment and mentorship, Dr. Morse.

My passion is to help recruit more minorities into the profession. In my master's thesis, "Minority Student Perceptions of the Veterinary Profession," I offered 23 ways the profession can intrigue more people of color to consider veterinary medicine as a profession. I have also lectured to veterinary students on cultural competence and the business case for diversity at Kansas State, Tuskegee, and The Ohio State universities.

Today fewer than 10 black veterinarians are thought to be among the 3,300 Ohio VMA members. It's a Catch-22—you don't have minority veterinarians who other minorities can look up to, so they don't aspire toward veterinary medicine.

My early inspiration toward a veterinary career came from going to woods and wetlands where I observed or caught animals, often bringing them home to raise. My mentors at Tuskegee and throughout my career were Dr. Eugene W. Adams and Dean Walter C. Bowie. I was also influenced by Arthur Ashe, a close friend from childhood and throughout life, with whom I shared many substantive conversations on the complexities of race relations.

Why should race matter, Dr. Morse?

Clients like their caretakers to be the same race they are. That's called race concordance. Our country is approaching 40-some percent minorities while racial minorities represent only 12.2 percent of students in U.S. veterinary schools.

It's also been shown that problem solving is much enhanced by different perspectives. And embracing diversity is just the right thing to do.

Do many people not see the value of diversity, Dr. Morse?

I've found that most people don't consider it; it's not on their radar. My master's degree is in psychology with a diversity management specialization. I try to help people understand and repair the social problem of prejudice and discrimination from a psychological standpoint. It's a tough uphill climb, but I see progress.