Lifesaving innovator and activist
Growing up in Alabama, Levi Watkins viewed the world from the passenger seat of a station wagon driven by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On Sunday mornings, Watkins would go to King’s house to pick up the list of people who needed transportation to church. Watkins would take the worshipers to church, and after the service, King would drive Watkins home, imparting wisdom along the way.
Influenced by the activism of King, Ralph David Abernathy, his parents and others, Watkins endured the challenge of being the first black to integrate Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Later the Rev. Jesse Jackson dubbed Watkins “the doctor of the movement” because he provided medical services to so many civil rights leaders, including Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Andrew Young.
Watkins arrived at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1970, just two years after King’s assassination, determined to help the university
move from integration to true diversity. “I knew that people of color had the potential of changing Johns Hopkins,” he said.
Watkins has been a key motivator of that change. Renowned for performing the world’s first human implantation of the automatic implantable defibrillator, he also helped the hospital develop its cardiac arrhythmia service and established the nation’s first postdoctoral association. In 1979, Watkins joined the medical school’s admissions committee. With his leadership, minority representation at the school had increased 400 percent by 1983. Watkins also initiated an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration at Johns Hopkins, bringing in such notable speakers as Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou, and along with Gregory William Branch, MD, he co-founded United Voices, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions gospel choir. The commemoration is still a part of Johns Hopkins’ annual observance of King’s birthday.
Dr. Watkins died in 2015.
Innovative engineer, electrifying educator
When James West was a child, his curious mind compelled him, much to his family’s chagrin, to take apart his grandfather’s watch and his brother’s toys and to stick his finger in an electrical outlet. But a lifetime of curiosity also led him—even without the benefit of an official college degree—to secure more than 250 patents and accelerate the communications revolution.
In 1962, West and Gerhard Sessler, a fellow engineer at Bell Labs, developed the electret microphone, which is used today in most telephones and many other electronic devices. During more than four decades with Bell Labs, West continued to innovate and to expand academic and professional opportunities for blacks through the company’s Summer Research Program and Corporate Research Fellowship Program.
West joined the Johns Hopkins University faculty in 2002—at age 72—as a research professor in the Whiting School of Engineering. At Johns Hopkins, he continues his legacy of groundbreaking research and of expanding learning opportunities for future engineers. As the first chair of the Divisional Diversity Council of the Whiting School, he works with colleagues to recruit and retain minority students.
Ilene Busch-Vishniac, former dean of the Whiting School and a mechanical engineering professor, describes West, whom she helped recruit to Johns Hopkins, as “arguably the most accomplished and important black scientist active today.”
For his achievements, West has been honored with a National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor for technological innovation, and been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Collector of firsts
For Clifton Wharton, being the first black person to earn a master’s degree in international affairs from Johns Hopkins University was only the beginning. He went on to become the first black to receive a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, the first black president of a major U.S. university (Michigan State), the first black to head the largest university system in the nation (the 64-campus State University of New York) and the first black chairman and CEO of a major U.S. corporation (TIAA-CREF).
In between these firsts, Wharton held various positions in philanthropy, economics, higher education and business, including 22 years working with the Rockefellers on foundation projects in Latin America and Southeast Asia and serving briefly as deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.Wharton has garnered more than 60 honorary doctorates in recognition of his versatility and achievements.
Champion of Change—Black Faculty and Staff Association Founder
The Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA) came together, as so many advocacy groups do, over lunch and a conversation. Lunch was at the Polo Grill, then a restaurant across from Homewood Field, and the people who had gathered to talk were black senior staff members concerned about the lack of support for people of color at Johns Hopkins. Toni Moore-Duggan, one of the participants, recalled how that lunch and subsequent discussions among the staff members led to their decision in 1995 to establish the BFSA. “After graduating from Johns Hopkins and while working there, it became evident that there was no voice or forum for black people having difficulties here,” said Moore-Duggan, a certified nurse practitioner who worked at the institution for years. At first, Moore-Duggan said, she and the other staff members were not sure if anyone would buy into efforts to create a forum for people of color, but they did. Seventeen years later, the group is not only going strong but has expanded its mission: to help foster a culture of collaboration by promoting and enhancing the identity and professional welfare and growth of faculty, staff and students through collaborations, community service, education, research and cultural activities. The BFSA has also charged itself with being a crucial resource for the continued success of Johns Hopkins through the development and cultivation of relationships with key leaders of the institution. Paul T. White, assistant dean of admissions at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, previously served as associate dean for admissions and financial aid for the School of Medicine and as president of the BFSA. Before joining Johns Hopkins, he held leadership positions in admissions for Yale University, Hamilton College and Colgate University. He earned a law degree from Georgetown University. He said he continues to work in admissions because of the opportunity to “help bring together a class, to shape the institution.”
During her senior year at Western High School in Baltimore City, Gail Williams-Glasser wondered if and how she could possibly gain entrance to an elite college. Although her parents opposed and could not afford to bankroll her plans, she found support in a program called Training Now for Tomorrow, designed to encourage academically gifted working-class black students to pursue and succeed in higher education.
With bolstered confidence, honors student Williams-Glasser approached Johns Hopkins University and was quickly enrolled. It was the fall of 1970, the first year that Johns Hopkins began accepting female undergraduates, and among the 90 admitted were five black women: Williams-Glasser, two fellow freshmen, Shirley Dilsworth and Karen Freeman Burdnell, and two transfer students, Lynn Parker and Barbara Wyche.
Although she lived at home during her four years at Johns Hopkins and worked 25 hours a week at Sinai Hospital, Williams-Glasser still found time to join a chemistry club and, with a friend, to establish the university’s first cheerleading squad.
Williams-Glasser serves as the director of compliance and risk management at the League for People with Disabilities. She remains involved with the university as a member of the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association, the Society of Black Alumni, the Johns Hopkins Club and the Frederick Scott Brigade.