The Savannah Tribune Salutes Black History Month
As we celebrate Black History Month, Dr. Jim Dandy and his commitment to recruiting blacks into the field of optometry, there are some similarities that become apparent. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like the newly freed black families of the nineteenth century often started out with meager resources. Dr. Dandy arrived at Bethune Cookman College with $29 and his mother’s prayers. What sustained both Dr. Dandy and the HBCUs was the collective dedication and hope for a better future. In spite of their struggles, HBCUs have proudly done more with less. A National Science Foundation study found that the top eight colleges producing African Americans who went on to get PhDs. in science and engineering over the previous decade were HBCUs — ahead of Harvard, UC-Berkeley, MIT, Brown and Stanford. Dr. Dandy recognized the importance of recruiting blacks into the field of optometry.
When asked about those days, he told his story. “Obviously, there was a need for more optometrists to serve our community. There were very few black optometrists in the US. In fact, some optometry colleges had no black students at all. This was crucial to me, especially because of my ensuing blindness.
Historical Black Colleges And Universities
My loss of sight was not preventable, but blindness for many is avoidable with the proper treatment and care. The importance of increasing the number of black optometrists was a cause that inspired me to start a recruitment campaign.
Another black student, Alton Williams of Wilmington, Delaware, and I approached the administration at Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), and we convinced them of the need to recruit more black students. The administration awarded us a small stipend to pay for our gas and food while we travelled to HBCUs to speak to black students, majoring in the sciences. Alton and I travelled to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina to recruit.
During my second year at PCO, I recruited my brother, who was teaching high school math, algebra and trigonometry in our hometown of Lake City, Florida. He quit his job and enrolled in the Southern College of Optometry (SCO), becoming its first black student. When I began my practice in Savannah, I continued my recruitment activities at my own expense. I travelled and spoke at HBCUs in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. I also became active with the National Optometric Association (NOA), and eventually was elected as President of the Georgia Chapter. That gave me the opportunity to establish partnerships and address the retention and recruitment problems at colleges of optometry. I established a relationship with the administrators at the various colleges and we began to monitor the progress of the black students. If there was a need for tutorial services, the NOA provided them. Also, my brother and I would allow high school students to shadow us in the office, and encouraged them to become optometrists. I often spoke to elementary and middle school students about optometry, as well. Vera Burns, from Savannah State was one of my recruits. Dr. Burns is presently practicing optometry in Atlanta, Georgia, and she also served on the Georgia State Board of Examiners in Optometry.
I suppose, because of my eye problem, I wanted everyone to become an optometrist. My daughter Ronlyn worked in my front office, at Savannah Family Vision Center and upon graduation, enrolled in Howard University’s Pre-Med program. You see, it was my dream for Ronald and Russell to become Ophthalmologists and for Ronlyn to become an Optometrist. Ronlyn, however, told me on one of her visits home that she wanted to talk. We drove to Daffin Park and I listened. Ronlyn became teary eyed and immediately I thought, “My God the girl is pregnant”. But the fact of the matter was that she really did not want to become an optometrist. She was only doing it for me, so I told her no, that I wanted her to be happy and to do what she wanted to do…to follow her dreams, not mine. Consequently, she went back to Howard and changed her major.
Ronald and Russell practically grew up in my office, for they were part of the janitorial team and on Saturday and Sunday, after church, we would clean the office. When they were five or six, they would dust and run the vacuum. As they got older, they swept the parking lot, mowed the grass and pulled weeds from the flower beds. When they got in high school, I taught them how to assist me in the Examination Room. Now, I never pushed them, but I heavily encouraged them and prayed that they would decide to go into ophthalmology. During their fourth year in medical school they were doing their rotations. They approached me and said, “Dad we have decided to do our residency in ophthalmology.” I was so happy and thrilled. I went into my office, got down on my knees and said Hallelujah Thank You, Jesus! God answers prayers!
Savannah Family Vision Center became a training ground for Eye Practices in Savannah and throughout the country. Barbara Mallard Smalls, my first employee, is now the manager of the Optical Department at Wal-Mart. Tangie Solomon, a former employee, is now a Certified Ophthalmic Technician at Georgia Eye. Calista Haynes, a former employee, is now a top salesperson at Eye Glass World in Atlanta. MacArthur Griffin, a former employee, is now a practicing Optometrist in Morrow, Georgia. Edward Sammons did an externship in our office and is now a practicing Optometrist at South Coast Medical. The following optometrists began in my office: Dr. Sherri Becker, Hampton, VA.; Dr. Sylvian Ung, Austin TX.; Dr. Jacqueline Lucas, Winona, MS.; and Dr. Jakelyn Parker-Herriott, Savannah, GA.
It is my sincere hope that I have played a part in recruiting black science majors from HBCUs, into the field of optometry. I am confident that the doctors I recruited have saved someone’s sight. I also know that one day, a cure will be found for the disease that has robbed me of my sight. Who knows, it may be a black man or woman, and they just might be one my recruits.
Part 4: Change of Focus