It Takes More Than a Vision

Alumnus Endows a Scholarship to Attract Black Students from the South

Not long after Roosevelt McCorvey, MD ’73, came to Jefferson as a first-year student, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, a Jefferson trustee, summoned him and several other African American medical students.

Judge Higginbotham, who often referred to himself as “a survivor of segregation,” was a commanding presence, a large man who had risen from poverty to become a legal legend and counselor to presidents and prime ministers. He was an influential legal thinker who championed affirmative action and civil rights, and was one of the Black jurists President Lyndon B. Johnson had considered to integrate the Supreme Court before naming Thurgood Marshall the first Black justice in 1967.

Dr. McCorvey is a survivor too and had come a long way before arriving in the great jurist’s presence. He’d grown up in the Deep South, where discrimination and segregation were a way of life. The oldest of eight children, he went to work at age 11 when his father died and continued working as an undergraduate studying biology at Tuskegee Institute. In fact, he worked three jobs: as a phlebotomist at John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital on Tuskegee’s campus, as a research assistant for one of his professors, and as a barber on weekends in a local shop. He sent money home to his mother, used some of his earnings to pay living expenses, and set aside a little for medical school—all while taking classes and maintaining a respectable GPA.

“One of the most difficult things about medical school is the economics of it,” Dr. McCorvey explains. “At that time, I was married with my first child. I had saved some money, but I didn't have enough to go past one year of schooling.”

The judge told the students about funds that were available through affirmative action. “I didn't know the money was available,” Dr. McCorvey says. “I think he wanted to make us aware there was financial help from the federal government and that we could apply for it.” It wasn’t a large sum, but for students like Dr. McCorvey who scrimped and saved every penny, a little financial assistance was a lot of help.

But “economics” wasn’t the real point of Judge Higginbotham’s summons, although it was an essential piece of a much bigger agenda. His life was a model for how one individual could make a successful career and make a difference. In his mind, the success of one served the good of all.

At the time Dr. McCorvey met with him, the judge was a Jefferson trustee and determined to do everything he could to inform, advise, and open doors for African American medical students. He was using his stature and influence to build up Black participation—one student at a time—in the professions, especially in the legal and medical professions. To thrive, the Black community needed justice under the law and it needed health and wellbeing, but the professionals charged with bringing justice and health to all didn’t always deliver for African Americans.

“Judge Higginbotham had a vision of increasing the number of Black medical students who would become successful physicians in the Black community,” Dr. McCorvey says. “He made time for us and made a point of helping us when we couldn’t help ourselves. He understood that no one can do it alone.”

Even as a young man, Dr. McCorvey wanted to help his community. When he became a professional, he came to understand the strategic wisdom behind the judge’s vision for mentoring the young as a way of lifting up the whole community.

“When I was applying to medical school,” he says, “I was concerned about healthcare disparity—disparity in the treatment of Black Americans and disparity in the number of Black doctors there are to administer care to the Black community. That has always been the driving force for me. It still is. After I graduated from Jefferson, I had many opportunities, but I came back to the South to be involved in building an OB/GYN residency program at Meharry Medical College.”

Dr. McCorvey returned to Montgomery, Alabama, and established his own OB/GYN practice. He also had an academic appointment as an associate clinical professor at Meharry, one of the nation’s oldest and largest historically Black colleges and universities dedicated to educating physicians, dentists, researchers, and health policy experts. Students and residents came to his Montgomery practice where he trained and mentored them. And like Judge Higginbotham, he helped guide them on their way to success, reminding them to always keep in mind what the judge called “the voiceless and forgotten people.”

“If you look at the African American community,” Dr. McCorvey observes, “you realize that we have more hypertension that is killing Black folks. I would like for that to be alleviated. If you look at the African American community, you'll see that diabetes is hitting more of us than anybody else. I would hope that we could start to alleviate that. If you look at heart attacks, it’s the same story. As a practitioner, I want everybody to be healthy. But I want Black Americans to stop dying so frequently from these problems. I think the way you do that is to have better access to care and more Black physicians.”

When Dr. McCorvey says concern about health inequity still drives his actions, he’s talking about the McCorvey-Higginbotham Scholarship he recently established at SKMC. The scholarship gives need-based financial aid to African American students who attended Tuskegee or another HBCU.

Since 2016, SKMC has offered a scholarship that benefits Black students: the Drs. Algernon Brashear Jackson and Henry McKee Minton Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship is named for two Jefferson alumni who were among the founders of Sigma Pi Phi, also known as the Boulé, the nation’s oldest African American fraternity. The organization, which endowed the scholarship, is a fraternal union of high-achieving and influential Black professionals dedicated to supporting each other and the community, and to inspiring young people to succeed.

Drs. Jackson (1901) and Minton (1907) were also the founders of Mercy Hospital, Philadelphia’s second Black hospital. “These gentlemen who started the Boulé were the same type of gentlemen who would start a hospital,” observes Dr. McCorvey, who is a member of Sigma Pi Phi. “They worked in the hospital and wanted to be involved in the community in such a way that it is uplifted, which tells me they were concerned about what I’m concerned about: healthcare disparity.”

The McCorvey-Higginbotham Scholarship is Dr. McCorvey’s way of taking on racial injustice in healthcare while emulating and honoring the judge. It extends a hand to Black medical students who, like him, are driven to succeed and committed to using their professional skill and stature to help Black communities, ideally in the South.

Judge Higginbotham saw—and Dr. McCorvey sees—how legal and medical institutions have failed African Americans. They also understand the power of those institutions and the possibilities that open to those who become successful professionals in them, how they become empowered to work for equal justice under the law and equal health and wellbeing for all people.

“My dad’s success was fostered by someone who had the ability to help him from a higher level,” notes Dr. McCorvey’s daughter Barbara Michele McCorvey, MD, ’97, FACR. “That’s why we want to incorporate Judge Higginbotham’s name into the scholarship: because he helped my dad when he was at a point where he couldn't help himself. My dad and others like him were just young people with a vision of entering the medical profession and helping others. But it takes more than a vision to become a doctor.”

Dr. McCorvey calls the scholarship “a beacon of light” at Jefferson that’s aimed at Tuskegee and other HBCUs. “It’s just a little beacon,” he says, “but I am challenging Jefferson to escalate the number of Black physicians they educate, because I think we can do better.”