Dr. Patterson was born in the Anacostia section of the District of Columbia on Oct. 10, 1901. This was within a few blocks of the birthplace of his namesake, former slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass, according to “Chronicles Of Faith: The Autobiography of Frederick D. Patterson.”
And like Frederick Douglass, the young Dr. Patterson overcame great odds and inspired others to do the same. Both of his parents, Mamie Lucille and William Ross Patterson, died of tuberculosis by the time their son was 2 years old, leaving him to be raised by various family members from Washington, D.C., to Texas.
His sister, Bessie, acted as his primary caregiver and sacrificed to ensure him a good education. She dedicated nearly half her $20 monthly salary to enroll him in a private elementary school in Austin, Texas. He then studied in the Agriculture Department at the Prairie View Normal and Industrial Institute (now Prairie View A&M University). Later, he enrolled at Iowa State College (now University) College of Veterinary Medicine, where he graduated in 1923.
Although Dr. Patterson was the only African-American in the veterinary program, the integrated campus provided him with a generally positive environment. However, he had to endure a humiliating situation at a summer military camp. Because he and another black student ate at a separate table from the white students, he was treated as a “pariah.” He wrote in his autobiography: “I learned a lesson with regard to race that I never forgot: how people feel about you reflects the way you permit yourself to be treated. If you permit yourself to be treated differently, you are condemned to an unequal relationship.”
Dr. Patterson came to Tuskegee Institute in 1928 to direct a veterinary science program that had been established in 1910 but needed to be developed. It was during Dr. Patterson’s tenure as director of the veterinary science program that he began to give serious thought to the opportunities for blacks to study veterinary medicine, according to “The Legacy: A History of The Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine (1945-1995).”
By age 31, Dr. Patterson had received a master’s degree from Iowa State (in 1927) and a doctorate from Cornell University (in 1932).
Reform and progress
After his studies at Cornell, he returned to Tuskegee to resume directing the veterinary science program, and, shortly thereafter, he was named the institute’s third president, serving from 1935-1953.
At the age of 33, Dr. Patterson worried he might be considered too young for the position, so he told the selection committee that he was 34 years old, since he was technically into his 34th year, according to his autobiography. That same year, Dr. Patterson married Catherine E. Moton, the daughter of Robert Russa Moton, the second president of Tuskegee Institute.
As president, Dr. Patterson lobbied successfully for a formal program in veterinary medicine. With modest public financial support as well as student labor, he and Dr. Edward B. Evans established Tuskegee’s School of Veterinary Medicine. It opened in 1945 with the expectation that it would become a regional center where black students could study veterinary medicine. From 1946-1947, Dr. Evans served as the founding dean, with the first veterinary class graduating in 1949.
“Though some of the northern veterinary colleges, in particular, Kansas State and Ohio State Universities, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, had educated African-American students before 1940, the numbers were small (fewer than 70),” wrote Dr. Donald F. Smith, former dean of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, in a Jan. 13, 2012, blog post about Tuskegee. “The southern veterinary colleges, where most of the aspiring black students lived, were segregated. As the northern colleges became more pressed to admit students from their states, there were few places for African-Americans students to receive the DVM degree. The veterinary school allowed Southern blacks to receive professional training closer to home.”
Several faculty in their early years traveled to Northern schools such as Cornell and Iowa State for graduate degrees. This was essential for Tuskegee’s veterinary school to establish credible teaching and research programs and to eventually achieve accreditation, Dr. Smith added.
The veterinary school received probationary accreditation from the AVMA Council on Education in May 1949 and earned full accreditation in 1954. That legacy of championing diversity within a mostly homogenous profession continues today, with approximately 50 percent of the nation’s African-American veterinarians having graduated from Tuskegee.
Another lasting legacy of Dr. Patterson’s at Tuskegee is related to the commercial aviation program he initiated after he learned to fly. So committed was he to providing that opportunity to other young African-Americans, according to his biography, that he overcame the political and social impediments of the day such as the military’s strict segregation and won a federal grant to establish a training site to teach young black men to fly military planes. This gave birth to the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of the World War II Army Air Corps (as of June 1941, Army Air Forces).
The later years
Dr. Patterson’s most far-reaching initiative began in 1944. While searching for new methods by which private black colleges could become financially sound, he conceived of and founded the United Negro College Fund, the first cooperative fundraising venture in American higher education.
Nearly 60 years after its inception, the fund has raised more than $2 billion for its 39 member colleges and universities and has provided educational access for the nation’s African-American youth, according to its website.
“By his inspiring example of personal excellence and unselfish dedication,
he has taught the nation that, in this land of freedom, no mind should go to waste.”
Inscription from Presidential Medal of Freedom
awarded to Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson
Dr. Patterson’s prominence in higher education won him an invitation to sit on Harry S. Truman’s President’s Commission on Higher Education from 1946-1947, which called for the reorganization of higher education in the United States. Among the developments that evolved from the commission were the system of community colleges and the enactment of Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which brought direct institutional support to America’s small colleges and universities. Both policies continue to affect higher education on a widespread scale.
Dr. Patterson also served from 1957-1970 as president of the nonprofit Phelps Stokes Fund, a foundation sponsoring educational programs for African-Americans, Native Americans, and Africans. In the mid-1970s, he devised the College Endowment Funding Plan, a program that depended on funds from private businesses that were matched with federal moneys to help historically black colleges and universities raise endowment money.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan awarded Dr. Patterson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Its inscription reads: “... By his inspiring example of personal excellence and unselfish dedication, he has taught the nation that, in this land of freedom, no mind should go to waste.”
Dr. Patterson died in 1988 at age 86.