It's Black History Month and this morning the Pre-Kindergarten classes at Miner Elementary School in Washington, D.C. celebrated with a presentation. Of course I was there! I arrived early so had a chance to chat with another grandma, a woman whose children had attended Miner. Her granddaughter is in my grandson Leo's class. Then the children filed in, most wearing their school uniforms -- navy pants or dresses, white t-shrits -- but a few were in costumes. One girl was in a glamorous dress and there were a policeman, a fireman and a mail carrier. Leo looked like a doctor or a dentist with a light attached to his forehead, hospital scrubs and clear plastic gloves. He was very solemn. A teacher led them in some clapping exercises and everyone sang "The Eensy Weensy Spider." Then it was time for the show.
The children came up in small groups, first to talk about African American inventors -- Madame C.J. Walker, made a millionaire by her hair care products, Garrett Morgan who invented the traffic light and the gas-mask, George Washington Carver who gave the world peanut butter. When Leo's turn came he and two other boys, one dressed for the operating room the other in a white physician's coat, announced, "Dr. Charles Drew we have to thank. He invented the blood bank." I noticed that Leo was holding two vials of "blood."
I am familiar with Dr. Drew and his work because, at a critical moment in his studies, he received much needed assistance from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Drew was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood where many African Americans lived. He graduated from Dunbar High School and won an athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. He went to medical school at McGill University in Montreal. During his final year there, in 1931 his funds ran short. He was in danger of not being able to finish. He applied to the Rosenwald Fellows program and with the $1,000 he was awarded was able to complete his studies. He went on to become the first African American to earn a Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia University and to teaching positions at, among other places, Howard University.
Drew's passion was the study of blood. He had written his thesis on blood plasma and how it could be extracted from blood for storage, preservation and, later, transfusion, processes which became of vital importance during the second World War. He fought the then prevalent practice of separating of blood by race, insisting that there was no scientific basis for this. Drew was responsible for creating bloodmobiles -- trucks where blood could be collected and then stored safely.
Dr. Drew used to travel once a year to Tuskegee, Alabama to work at the free clinic at the hospital there. In 1950, when he was just 45, he was on his way to the clinic, driving at night through rural North Carolina, when he was killed in an automobile accident. The story spread that he had died because he had been denied medical attention because of his race. In the bonus features that accompany filmmaker Aviva Kempner's documentary film "Rosenwald," Drew's daughter, Charlene Drew Jarvis refutes this. No, he was not denied medical care because of his race, she says. His injuries were grave and his life could not have been saved. But he was driving at night, after a long grueling day, because there was no where for African American travelers to stay at that time. He fell asleep at the wheel of his car.
I will wait til Leo is older to tell him that part of the story. For now he doesn't need to know that when Drew was a college athlete he couldn't stay at the same place as other members of his Amherst football team. I will talk with Leo about how smart he was and how hard he worked and how glad I am that his class is studying African American inventors. You don't learn history all at once. There is ALWAYS more to know. But I am glad Leo has started.