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Dr. Roderick E. Charles, 90, psychiatrist who broke color barriers

Sept. 4, 1927 – June 14, 2018

Dr. Roderick E. Charles, a psychiatrist who broke color barriers as a student at the University of Maryland and as a member of the admissions committee at the University at Buffalo, died June 14 in Washington, D.C., where he had lived for the past few months. He was 90.

Born in Baltimore, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy on his 17th birthday in 1944 and served in the South Pacific.

Upon his return, he finished high school and enrolled at Howard University under the G.I. Bill, where friends and advisers encouraged him to go into psychiatry.

He had an even bolder plan:  He wanted to be the first African-American medical student at the University of Maryland, a distinction that he hoped would bring scholarships to pay his tuition.

“I had a certain level of arrogance,” he told an interviewer in 2004. “I didn’t think I would die when I went to war. I didn’t think they could keep me out of medical school. I never worried about those things.”

At the time, the University of Maryland School of Medicine did not admit blacks. African-American students who passed the entrance exam instead were offered tuition-paid placement in historically black medical schools in other states.

Another black student, Dr. Donald Stewart, challenged the policy with the help of the NAACP, which assigned the case to its leading attorney, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In exchange for dropping his racial discrimination lawsuit, Dr. Stewart was accepted into the Class of 1955.

So was Dr. Charles, with scholarships from the Bragg Home Fund and Jewish Family Services to cover all four years of his studies.

Neither man knew that the other had been admitted until the first day of class in the fall of 1951. Both were amazed.

Dr. Charles and Dr, Stewart, who practiced as an internist for many years in Baltimore and died in 2016, were placed in the same four-man team in anatomy class, along with two Jewish students.

All through medical school, he lived at home, turning down an invitation to join Phi Delta Epsilon, a mostly Jewish medical fraternity. He also kept a job pressing clothes, which he had done since he was a boy.

In the medical school’s teaching hospital, he met Mamie Debnam, who ran educational and play programs for pediatric patients. They were married in 1956.

While an intern at Milwaukee County General Hospital in Wisconsin, he decided to pursue a residency in psychiatry and came to UB.

Active as an adjunct faculty member, he was considered to be one of the pioneers nationally in breaking down racial discrimination in college admissions.

He told the interviewer in 2004, “It was tough even getting them to look at black applicants. It was a trip. But they learned.”

Dr. Charles went on to serve on a policy committee overseeing the admission committee.

In the 1960s, he was a consultant for Erie County Family Court and UB’s Health Service. He developed and directed the health program at BUILD Academy.

He also helped found and oversaw operations of a free medical clinic serving migrant farm workers in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and southern Erie counties.

He maintained his private practice in offices on North Pearl Street and continued to see patients until 2016.

He was president of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Medical Association, an organization of black and Hispanic physicians.

He served on the 8th Judicial District Commission, an independent screening panel for judicial candidates. In 2015, he received a Black History Month Healthcare Award from Mayor Byron W. Brown. He also appeared in “Who’s Who Among Black Americans.”

Survivors also include a daughter, Kimberly Trent; a son, Roderick T.; two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Monday in Amigone Funeral Home, 1132 Delaware Ave.

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