Season 3, Episode 7 - Dr. Herman Gray, head of Wayne Pediatrics, shares his family's story to underscore the power of Black history

Dr. Herman Gray, the chair of the Wayne State University Department of Pediatrics and former president and chief executive officer of the DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan, shares stories from his family's legacy to highlight the power of living Black history.


Herman Gray, M.D., M.B.A., is the chair of the Wayne State University Department of Pediatrics.

Dr. Gray is a former president and chief executive officer of the DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan.

Dr. Gray's history with Children's Hospital of Michigan dates to the late 1970s, when he served as chief pediatric resident. While with CHM, he also served as vice president of graduate medical education, pediatric residency program director, chief of staff and chief operating officer. Under his leadership, the residency program developed several innovative programs and successfully recruited a significant number of minorities.

He was named president and chief executive officer of CHM in 2005. He left that position in September 2015 to become president and chief executive officer of United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Dr. Gray received his medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1976 and a master of business administration from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 2003. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

He has served as chief medical consultant for the Michigan Department of Community Health Children's Special Health Services and as vice president and medical director of Clinical Affairs for Blue Care Network. A child and family advocate, Dr. Gray has been honored numerous times for his humanitarian efforts related to pediatric health care, particularly for children with special needs. He has served on a variety of state and national committees, and is one of the founding commissioners on the U.S. Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission.

Additional Resources

Follow the Wayne State University School of Medicine on Facebook

Follow the School of Medicine on Twitter

Watch Dr. Gray as he presents the new Detroit facility for Wayne Pediatrics

Read more about the WSU School of Medicine's impact on Black history


Introduction:                Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news, announcements, information and current event discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today@Wayne serves as the perfect forum for our campus to begin a conversation, or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:            Welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. As we move through Black History Month, many of us in the Wayne State community here in Detroit and throughout the state and nation are taking time to reflect on the remarkable contributions Black Americans have made to the whole of the fabric of our country. From common laborers and inventors to actors and athletes to the well-heeled professional classes, the stories of Black triumph, inspiration and aspiration abound. At Wayne State, such stories are plentiful too many, in fact, for us to fit in any one podcast, news story or video. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy the individual stories of triumph of the tribulation wherever we find them. One man whose life has come to embody such triumph and struggle is Dr. Herman Gray, the chair of the Wayne State University Department of Pediatrics and former president and chief executive officer of the DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan.

                                    The son of a physician who was once denied an opportunity to practice medicine at DMC because he was Black, Dr. Gray has not only enjoyed a success that was denied to past generations, including his own dad, but he's dedicated years of his life to helping pave the way for new generations of Black doctors as well as physicians from an array of other backgrounds. Now here to join us on the podcast to talk a little bit about the power of living Black history both today and yesteryear is Dr. Herman Gray. Welcome, Dr. Gray.

Herman Gray:               Thank you very much. Great to be here.

Dawsey:                       Great to have you. So let's just talk a little bit about, first of all, kind of who you are. I mean, we're familiar, but for our viewers, tell us a little bit about your role here at Wayne State and the contributions that you've been able to make you've been fortunate to make as a pediatrician to the large Detroit community.

Gray:                            Sure. Well, I'm a native Detroiter, son of Detroit, educated in Detroit Public Schools. Lots of Detroiters always have to mention what high schools they went to; so, I'm a Cass Tech kid, chem-bio curriculum. I wanted to be a doctor since I was since I couldn't remember. And I had the opportunity to meet that goal. I am the chair of the Department of Pediatrics, as you mentioned; pediatrics was not something that was part of my grand master plan. My dad, who had immigrated to the States to go to medical school, 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.

                                    I have had a number of experiences, I suppose, that aren't typical for a practicing physician. You mentioned…One,  in terms of my role at the DMC Children's Hospital in Michigan, as the CEO there for almost nine years. In addition to that, I would ... After I left that role, I became the CEO of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan for a couple of years. People really thought I was hot at that point; you know, what's the doctor doing at the United Way? And I found my way back to Wayne State and the university about four years ago after the department chair there were lots of challenges in department that time. And it was thought that my relationship with the Children's Hospital and the faculty who worked at that children's hospital might serve the university well during a very difficult time.

                                    And it's a job that I never saw myself being in, which, in some respects, is the story of many of the jobs I've had over the years. But certainly I think a great message for young people is that you never know what life has in store for you, and you can make lots of plans and you should make lots of plans, and you should have great dreams. And those dreams should stretch you and pull you in ways that perhaps you even don't think you can manage. But even with all that, in thinking about your plan, life usually takes over and your plan becomes what life and the master has in mind for what your plan is.

Dawsey:                       Absolutely. Well, we're certainly glad that the winds of life sort of blew you in our direction.

Gray:                            Yeah. As am I.

Dawsey:                       Let's talk a little bit about your upbringing. You've had a remarkable upbringing, and you talked specifically about your father and the role that he had, and some of his struggles. Can you talk a little bit about some of those stories just the story of your upbringing and how your father's own struggles and the things that he's had to deal with, because he dealt with racism and he was denied some pretty big opportunities as a result of it? And yet, here you are, having sort of moved forward and attained, achieved things that past generations could only sort of dream of. Tell me a little bit about how that's worked for you, why that's worked and what your perspectives are on some of those struggles of the past, and how many of us have come to actually be the victors, represent the victory the triumph at the end of some of those battles.

Gray:                            Yeah. And certainly my life is something that our ancestors dreamed for their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren. And while it is certainly far from perfect, I'm certainly grateful for where I've been and what I've been able to do. I grew up in a middle-class family on the west side of Detroit, not too far walking distance of Central High School and Durfee Middle School and Roosevelt Elementary School. And my neighborhood school was Brady Elementary on Joy Road and Lawton. So a west-sider that's relevant to Detroiters, I suppose sometimes, although I live on the east side now, so I grew up on west side in the middle-class neighborhood that had lots of school teachers and people who worked in the post office and a handful of doctors and a handful of lawyers and preachers, and it was a close-knit, strong community in the Black community. It was not a hard knocks kind of a life that I experienced in my childhood.

                                    I went to that Brady Elementary School. I went to Central [High School] for a year. I ended up at Cass Tech, went to University of Michigan for my first two years of undergraduate experience. It was an extraordinarily tumultuous time: Anti-war Vietnam, anti-war rallies taking place on almost a daily basis on campus. Little too crazy for me; came back to Detroit and Wayne State for my last two years in undergraduate school as a pre-med student, and then ended up at medical school in Ann Arbor, so all public education. And I think I received a very fine education. My dad, as you mentioned, immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. He grew up in a small town, not too far from Kingston, and he was a pharmacist working in Jamaica, and he immigrated to the States in the mid- to late-'40s and went to medical school in Boston.

                                    And I can only imagine what his life was like as a medical student, as one of two or three Black people in the class, in a city that has a reputation of being a difficult place for people of color. And certainly his story bore that out, and he could not find a place that he could afford to live that would rent to a Black person, and so every day he got on the train from his small apartment in New York City, where he worked as a dishwasher, and took the train to Boston early enough so that he could be there for class and whatever activities he had to attend to as a medical student.

                                    And for the entire time he was in medical school, he went back and forth, back and forth on that train, catching a nap here and there, studying on the train, et cetera, to get through it because he could not find a place to live, and the school would not offer a place for him to live as a Black person. Fast forward, he graduates, somehow or another he ends up in Detroit. I don't, up to this day, I still don't know why he came here, but I do know that he had a friend a fellow physician, a classmate who was in Detroit. And he came to visit that friend. And my mother from Valdosta, Georgia, high school graduate, was working as the receptionist in that doctor's office. And 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, and Herman Gray Jr. was born sometime later. And so I was born and raised in Detroit, and my dad sacrificed a great deal because of the systemic racism that existed then and exists to this day.

                                    As an example, he was a surgeon  hired to be a surgeon without being able to work in a hospital. You don't do surgery in offices; I mean, particularly back then, you didn't do surgery in offices. You had to be in a hospital. 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 and making rounds with him in the so-called Black hospitals in Detroit, Burton Mercy Hospital, Resthaven Hospital, all long gone. Burton Mercy Hospital was started by Dr. Mercy and a few other Black doctors because they could not practice in the majority hospitals. 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 my dad chose to commute. He found hospitals. 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 Blacks, 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, that I can remember, is the guy in the car working someplace else that I infrequently saw, and he would write letters. He would ... There were people actually wrote back then. He would write letters and keep touch with me in that way, and a very occasional

Dawsey:                       Although it seems like he persevered. I think the thing that

Gray:                            He persevered.

Dawsey:                       We hear, certainly I'm a younger person, 54, and I hear stories like that. And it amazes me that these folks are able to kind of just keep on going, that they're not embittered, they don't pass that bitterness on to their children. What was it like for you to see your father kind of battle with those kinds of obstacles to battle with that kind of bias and still kind of press forward and continue to be the man that he was?

Gray:                            Yeah, as a young child, I don't think I even really fully appreciated just how difficult it was. I didn't understand, as an example, why he had to work someplace where he did not live that made no sense to me at all. And so this story of my dad and what he the lengths he went to practice as he had been trained in a quality institution is something that I didn't even begin to understand or start telling people about until I was significantly older, but bitterness affects the perpetrator of the bitterness as much as it affects the victim. And it doesn't take you anywhere positive, typically. And I think that our people have learned that lesson the hard way, certainly; that's not to say that you're passive and you roll over. Quite the contrary. It's in spite of the odds, you work your butt off and try to meet your goal.

Dawsey:                       Dr. King talked about burning the midnight oil, and I heard you talk about your dad taking that train and all the things that he had to do just to get to that's the classic example of burning that midnight oil.

Gray:                            Yeah, and a side note to that is some years later, when I was 13 or 14, my parents got divorced, and part of the reason as I understand it for the divorce was he wanted to go back to Jamaica. Jamaica got its independence in August of 1962, I believe, and in 1963, he went back home. And when asking him, Why did he have to leave? "Why do you have to leave?" He said to me, and these words, I will never ever forget: "A man can be a man there." And by that point in time, I was starting to sort of understand the story. There's still a lot that I didn't understand at that time, but as I've grown older, it makes more and more sense to me is that, what, even if Jamaica [were] a poor Caribbean island country, Black people ran it they ran it with dignity and respect. Everybody had equal opportunity if they could get an education, which was hard to come by. He was highly educated, and he lived a very good life in Jamaica for many, many years. And as a general surgeon, he delivered babies. He took care of kids. He did everything. He made rounds up in the Blue Mountains. He got paid with chickens or eggs or bottles of rum; I mean, it was a different life than in America, but it was a good life. And I think, when my dad died, he died happy and satisfied that he was someplace where he was viewed as someone equal to, and not lesser than.

Dawsey:                       Absolutely. I get that. I certainly get that. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on, just to talk a little bit about the importance of that history that living history, your family history. I say, it's whether it's individuals, institutions, it's all part of our history, and I'm just kind of curious, and I know you're busy, so I don't want to hold you up too much longer, but I do kind of want to ask a wrap-up question: Based on that kind of history, you talk about your own struggles, your dad's struggles, what advice would you give to young people, particularly young African Americans who, even today, find themselves battling bias and discrimination, whether it's in the classroom or in their careers and their communities, and talk a little bit about how being able to draw on your history helps in that struggle?

Gray:                            Yeah, great question and a great time for us to be pondering this as the global pandemic has made life even more difficult and complicated, certainly. Racism is alive and well; in spite of deniers and people who may think to the contrary, there's no question that racism is alive and well. And in many ways, it's more difficult now in the sense that, there are microaggressions, there are subtle ways to keep you from being your best self. Nobody had to guess, when you saw a sign over a water fountain that you couldn't drink from, you know, what you were up against. And it was very clear. And so nobody suffered from the illusion that everything is equal, that the playing field is equal because we have entertainers or football players or basketball players, or even a president that looks like us does not mean that there's no systemic racism in this country, and that the vast majority of people living, people of color in this country suffer.

                                    And so recognizing our history and what we have overcome should serve as an inspiration for what we are capable of. We are the descendants of people who were snatched from where they lived, put on the ship for multi-month travel and the most horrific conditions possible many of whom jumped off the sides of the ship rather than to go wherever they were going, and then lived through chattel slavery for decades and decades and decades. And we are the descendants of those people. We are strong and we are focused. We need to be focused and work to honor that history not just to honor it, but also to use that history to motivate us while it appears that things will never get better. The fact that Herman Gray Sr. could not practice in the hospital in which he was trained to practice in, and that his son, the next generation, Herman Gray Jr. was able to not only practice in that hospital, but he was the leader of that hospital he was the first African American leader of the Children's Hospital in Michigan, which is now over 150 years old.

                                    And so yes, there is a great deal that still needs to be done. We have seen health disparities at a level that many people did not even believe existed in the country as civilized as the United States. Yes, there is lots to do, but there is also much to celebrate. We have come a long way. Unfortunately, or fortunately, there is also a long way to go.

Dawsey:                       Absolutely.

Gray:                            And that requires us to educate ourselves, to train, to work hard, to not let minor things in the overall scheme of things. And so when I start feeling sorry for myself, as most of us do from time to time bad day, people beating up on me, somebody doesn't like me, whatever it is I reflect on that man sitting on the train, trying to study gross anatomy or physiology or pharmacology, going back and forth, working as a dishwasher simply so that he could create a better life for himself and ultimately his family. And that story is told countless times in America since we landed on this land.

Dawsey:                       Dr. Gray, can you just give us, really quickly, just some sense of how did it feel for you when you were named CEO of DMC knowing your father's history? I mean, I'm sure there had to be some level of satisfaction, but I'm just curious, were there other feelings other emotions extended with that? Like, how did you sort of process that?

Gray:                            Well, it was certainly a great moment for our family. Certainly. And 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, and 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 my dad and not just my family … I mean, obviously, 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.

                                    And the only reason that the medical staff became integrated then was because the Black medical society, the Detroit Medical Society, communicated directly with the federal government and said, "Until this is integrated medical staff, you should not give any money to support building the Detroit Medical Center." And that was effective. And it worked. And we just lost, in the last year or two, James Collins, who was the first African American pediatrician to be on staff at Children's Hospital, along with Art Thompson, who died some years ago. And so 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; it's something we may not as a people have much in a way of cash and of stocks and homes and buildings and businesses to pass onto our children, but we have absolutely have legacy.

                                    And that legacy is told in these stories all across America, every single day. And the way that our legacy right now 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 complete in 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.

Dawsey:                       And we've just got to keep on fighting. There's no better time to offer that message than right now during Black History Month. Well, listen, Dr. Gray, I really appreciate you taking the time. I don't want to hold you any longer. I do want to give you an opportunity if there's anything else you want to discuss or you want to touch on really quickly, maybe something we didn't cover. I just want to open up the floor to give you the opportunity to do that in parting words before we wrap up.

Gray:                            I think you did a great job of getting the major parts of my family's story out there and how it can be useful for others. And I would just incur ... this is, obviously, a Wayne State podcast. We're working really hard under Dr. Wilson's leadership to increase people of color in the Wayne State community, to increase graduation rates. And I would encourage all of those who feel like they're not good enough, who feel like the deck is stacked against them, to quit feeling sorry for yourself and just get to work. You are more than enough; you wouldn't be there if you [didn't] work enough, and don't just say it, but repeat it over and over again until you believe it because if you say it long enough, you will believe it. Excuse me, you will believe it. In that ... there is greatness in each one of us. We may not know what it is or where it's coming from or when it's going to show its face, but it's there.

                                    My dream, when I ultimately decided to be a pediatrician, was that I was just going to be a good pediatrician in the city of Detroit who took care of generations of children until I was too old to do it anymore, and then I would sit on my front porch in a rocking chair and would have those generations of people come and tell me how great I was. That was my dream. And I thought that was a pretty doggone good dream, and what actually ended up happening was so much more than that, that when you're young, it's sometimes hard to see what the age of 30, the age of 50, the age of 70 even looks like. You're really focused on the now, but be assured that there's a great history working for you if you lay the foundation for it, and that's what you're doing right now.

                                    When I was a second-year student, I mentioned that I came back to Detroit from University of Michigan. Part of the reason wasn't the anti-war protesting, because those were fun to go, to quite frankly, but a bigger part of it was that I had a pre-med counselor who I visited toward the end of my second year. 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." And I was stunned; I was literally speechless, and 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, who looked at me and said I told her the story. And she said, "You're going to let somebody else determine your future." You know, she may not have had a great education, but she was highly educated.

Dawsey:                       That's a lot of wisdom. Yes, sir.

Gray:                            Yes. And I sucked that in, sucked it up 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 and, you know, as they say, the rest is history.

Dawsey:                       All right. Well, Dr. Gray, I'm charged up right now. I really appreciate you sharing your story. Talk about the power of Black history of living, Black history of personal, Black history of embracing your legacy. This has been a fantastic conversation, Dr. Herman thank you so very much for taking the time to join us here on this Today@Wayne podcast. I absolutely wish you all the best. Hope to have you on again very soon. Take care.

Gray:                            Great to see you.

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