For Dr. Herman B. Gray Jr., the future couldn’t have seemed brighter.
It was 2005, and, after several years of working his way through the ranks of the Detroit Medical Center, Gray was now being named president of DMC’s Children’s Hospital, making him the first African American president in the hospital’s history.
And though he couldn't have known then that, years later, he’d eventually be named chief executive officer of Children's Hospital and DMC’s executive vice president of pediatric health services, Dr. Gray Jr. still had every reason to look ahead.
But first, he took a moment to reflect on the past.
Decades before Gray Jr.’s ascent, another Dr. Herman Gray — his father, a brilliant surgeon who’d immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica in the 1940s — had also gone to the Detroit Medical Center looking for work. Instead, Gray Sr. was turned away because, back then, DMC didn’t allow Black doctors to practice at its hospitals.
So even as he was showered with congratulations and praise for his steady rise at DMC, Gray Jr. couldn’t help but feel a bit of vindication on behalf of his dad, a man who’d toiled as a dishwasher for years and rode a train almost daily from New York City to Boston just so he could attend medical school. A man who, like so many Black physicians before and after him, had somehow managed to thrive — even in the face of the most blatant and virulent strains of racism.
“It was certainly a great moment for our family,” Gray Jr. said recently of his barrier-breaking 2013 promotion. “My daughters were young adults then, and so they understood it. They had not heard my dad’s family history as often, of course, as I had heard it, but they were well aware of it and who he was and what he was. For me personally, I guess my reflections on it were, I have to be the best damn president of this hospital that they have ever had! Because of my dad, yes, but not just for my family … Black physicians weren’t allowed to practice in any of the DMC hospitals, not just Children’s — any of the DMC hospitals, Harper-Grace, any of those hospitals — up until the late sixties.”
But for Gray Jr., now the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Wayne State University, the moment wasn’t merely about taking in the irony or even vindicating the struggles of his father or the generations of Black physicians who’d preceded them. For him and his family — as is so often true for African American families throughout both Detroit and the nation — his ascent also represented validation, of the lessons, the legacy and the lives of the men and women on whose shoulders he and successive generations have stood.
His rise was testament not only to Gray Jr.’s own brilliance and drive but also a vivid illustration of the way in which many Black families have used personal history to turn disappointment, discrimination and rejection into inspiring legacies of determination and success.
“My thoughts, as I reflected on it, were that I have to be excellent. I have to work really hard at it because anything less than that would be a dishonor to those people who sacrificed so much for me to be there. And legacy is important. We may not, as a people, have much in the way of cash and of stocks and homes and buildings and businesses to pass onto our children — but we absolutely have legacy.
“And that legacy is told in these stories all across America, every single day. Besides starting to build a little bit of wealth, our legacy is to leave something that is meaningful for our children and the next generation that they can use to motivate themselves, to motivate their children, to keep pushing forward. This ain't a time to roll over. This is not a time to give up. This is not a time to say, ‘I’m just checking out.’ This is the time to double down on our efforts because we are getting closer every single day to what we aspire for, and that is a completely equitable society. And we’re working at it, and we’re getting there, and it will happen. It may not happen in Herman Gray’s lifetime, but it will happen. It’s destined to happen.”
And when it does, it will be because of generations of men and women who, not unlike Gray, held fast to the idea that they could achieve, that they could rise despite the many social forces that sought to weigh down their ascent.
The product of a close-knit, middle-class family ensconced on the city’s west side, Gray is the son of his surgeon dad and a mom who’d come to the city from Georgia. His parents met while his mother was working as a receptionist for one of Gray Sr.’s professional friends.
“Somehow or another, when my dad visited his friend, he got stuck at the receptionist desk and spent more time there than he did talking to his friend,” Gray Jr. said with a chuckle. “And Herman Gray Jr. was born sometime later.”
Gray Jr. grew up surrounded by the sort of professionals and blue-collar laborers — from teachers and doctors to plumbers and autoworkers — who made up the very DNA of the city. And from as early as he can remember, his ambitions focused on one goal.
“I wanted to be a doctor since before I could remember,” said Gray Jr., who graduated from Cass Tech and attended the University of Michigan for two years before finishing his undergraduate education at Wayne State. “And pediatrics was not something that was part of my grand master plan. My dad was a surgeon, and he had told me when I was fairly young that the only good doctor was one that could cut. So I went to medical school thinking I was going to be a surgeon — and I fell in love with pediatrics, and that love affair with that specialty, and with kids in general, continues to this day.”
And despite his own struggles to become a physician, Gray Sr. did all he could to encourage his son’s dreams.
“I remember making rounds with my dad as a little guy, carrying his doctor bag, feeling I was just like the smartest thing in the world,” recalled Gray Jr. “I’d make rounds with him in the so-called Black hospitals in Detroit — Burton Mercy Hospital, Resthaven Hospital, all long gone.”
Gray Jr. didn’t know it then, but those hospitals had been forged in response to the same racism that had kept his dad and other Black physicians out of places like DMC.
“Burton Mercy Hospital was started by Dr. Burton and a few other Black doctors because they could not practice in the majority-white hospitals,” Gray Jr. explained. “They were not allowed to; patients were segregated. If there were Black patients in the hospitals, they were segregated in Black wards. But even in those Black wards, the Black doctors could not take care of them. The only physicians on the medical staff were white.”
And so, Gray Sr. made do. In addition to working the circuit of “Black” hospitals in Detroit, he traveled the country in search of work.
“He found hospitals,” Gray Jr. said. “One that I visited with him was in Roanoke, Virginia, as an example — a town that basically had a significant shortage of physicians in that town. And they were so desperate that they would actually hire Black physicians — out of desperation, not because they wanted to. And so, he would work in Roanoke during the week and then drive home for a few days to stay with family. And that’s how I saw my dad for most of my life, as the guy in the car working someplace else that I infrequently saw.
And so did his son.
While he didn’t face the same sort of legalized discrimination that confronted his dad and other Blacks in medicine, Gray Jr. recalled grappling with his own challenges. For example, he said, part of the reason that he left U-M for Wayne State as an undergraduate was because the very same people who should’ve been bolstering his ambitions were, subtly, trying to tear them down.
“I had a pre-med counselor who I visited toward the end of my second year,” said Gray Jr. “And he reviewed my record with me and said, ‘Well, it’s clear that you will not ever get accepted to medical school, so I would suggest that you consider being maybe a physical therapist or a dental hygienist. Those are really good jobs, too. And that would be a great place for you.’ I was stunned. I was literally speechless. I just left tearfully and had a pity party for myself, and after a day or so I went home to Detroit, to my high school graduate mother. I told her the story. And she just looked at me and said, ‘So you’re going to let somebody else determine your future?’”
It was a question his own father had had to answer decades ago. And now, confronted with his own setback, Herman Gray Jr. knew what his response had to be. The lesson, after all, had already been taught, the example already set.
“I sucked that advice in, sucked up my self-pity and transferred to Wayne State — where there were people who would affirm me, people who saw the potential in me, people who believed in me, people who supported me,” said Gray Jr., who would graduate WSU and return to U-M for medical school. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”
History and, of course, legacy.