Witt, Edwin T. 1920–
Edwin T. Witt 1920–
While not perceiving himself as either a hero or a victim, Edwin Witt stands a role model for the youth of today. Raised in Birmingham, Alabama during the Great Depression, Witt struggled to overcome rampant racism, poverty, and a highly dysfunctional family. He ultimately succeeded in achieving his dream of becoming a physician.
Edwin Witt was born on January 9, 1920, the first of three children born to Thomas Jesse and Virginia Alberta Ogletree Witt. Witt spent his childhood in South Woodlawn, Alabama, which was located six miles south of downtown Birmingham. Birmingham was a city notorious for its preservation of segregation and white supremacy. Racism and the restrictions which it inherently implied clearly defined Witt’s youth. While his neighborhood was approximately 80 percent white, social contacts existed for business purposes only. Like many of his generation, Witt vividly recalled not being permitted to buy popcorn in the movie theater lobbies, having to sit in the balcony, and being prohibited from sitting at the drug store’s soda fountain.
Woodlawn, Alabama’s African American community was close-knit and relatively stable. Approximately 99 percent of Witt’s neighbors were two-parent families who owned their homes and held good jobs. Moreover, as Witt described in his autobiography, Witt’s End, “Every neighborhood adult had an automatic parental surrogate disciplinary license to chastise any child they knew for any kind of misbehavior without rebuke from the child’s parents.”
Following the end of World War I in 1918, Witt’s father found employment at the Red Ore Mines in Huffman, Alabama. When the mines were closed in 1923, he purchased a horse and wagon and began to sell fruits and vegetables. With his route and customer base well-established, Witt’s father then capitalized on the demand for liquor generated by Prohibition and began to sell whiskey from his cart. The money earned from this business helped to sustain the family throughout the Depression, and allowed them to survive without public assistance. Forever an entrepreneur, Witt’s father later sold watermelons from a stand outside the family home, and established a barbecue next to it from which his wife sold spareribs and soft drinks.
Witt’s life was affected most drastically when his father added a new dimension to his business: selling a
Born Edwin T. Witt January 9, 1920; son of Thomas Jesse Witt and Virginia Alberta Ogletree Witt; married Cordelia Witt, June 1956. Education: Miles College, Birmingham, AL, B.A., 1943; Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN, M.D., 1946; National Institute of Mental Health Fellowship, Pediatric Psychiatry, Los Angeles County General Hospital, 1964-65.
Career: Internship, Harlem Hospital, New York, NY, 1946-47; general practice, Birmingham, AL, 1947-53; pediatric residency, Meharry Medical College, 1953; pediatricresidency, Kern General Hospital, Bakersfield, CA, 1954; pediatric practice, Los Angeles, CA, 1955-76; school physician, Los Angeles Unified School District, 1967-76; private pediatricpractice, Las Vegas, NV, 1976-80.
Selected memberships: Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity; president, Charles R. Drew MedicalSociety.
Addresses: Home— 8714 SVL Box, Victorville, CA 92392.
mind-altering and highly addictive form of whiskey commonly known as “hooch.” As Witt recalled, his father became addicted to hooch. Family life at the Witt household became increasingly chaotic as his father’s consumption escalated. Witt and his mother were the chief victims, both emotionally and physically, of his father’s latest enterprise. Moreover, as a result of his father’s active bootlegging, the family was subjected to the indignity of numerous police searches and raids.
In order to escape his abusive father, Witt began to spend increasing amounts of time with his maternal grandmother, a woman whom he adored. When Witt was six years old, his grandmother contracted pneumonia, and Dr. P.S. Moten came daily to visit her. During these consultations, Witt found himself mesmerized by the stethoscope, and particularly by the ear pieces, which he was convinced were horns. From this point forward, the sciences forever piqued his curiosity, and Witt unfailingly kept his sights pointed in the direction of a medical career. Interestingly, while Witt’s parents were both literate and his father read the daily Birmingham News, the Witt household did not contain any books. The annual Almanac, which was sent to every household, stood as the only magazine. Not surprisingly, then, his parents never encouraged his academic pursuits.
Although Witt’s parents were incapable of nurturing his budding interest in the medical profession, he found other supporters within his community. As Witt recounted in his autobiography, from the “professional demeanor and the smell of alcohol saturated cotton balls used to cleanse the skin before an injection” of Dr. Broughton, to Dr. A. G. Martin, a general practitioner who encouraged Witt to study medicine, to Mrs. Susie Felton, a rural elementary school teacher, Witt found strong sources of inspiration and motivation.
Following completion of Patterson Elementary School in 1933, Witt attended Industrial High School, located five miles north of downtown Birmingham. Although Woodlawn High was located less than one mile from his home, he was forced to attend Industrial because it was the only high school for African Americans in the area during the 1920s and 1930s. Instead of enjoying a short, six-block walk to school, Witt spent three hours daily commuting on the streetcar.
Witt had always dreamed of attending Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, in Tuskegee, Alabama. However, he had no means of earning the necessary tuition. Because he could not attend Tuskegee Institute, Witt decided not to pursue a college education. Because few jobs were available, he spent the next two years playing card games such as rise and fly whist with other unemployed neighbors and friends.
In 1939, two years after graduating from high school, a first-grade classmate offered Witt his 36-customer paper route with The Birmingham Post, one of the city’s two evening newspapers. As Witt recounted in Witt’s End, the “crowning point of my paper route” was a contest sponsored by the branch office manager to increase the number of subscribers. During the contest week, Witt serviced 102 people, with 66 new customers continuing their subscriptions at week’s end. Concurrently, in the summer of 1939, he found employment at the Merita Bakery, initially unloading 100-pound sacks of flour from a railroad box car and then sweeping the floors of the oven room.
At the same time, Witt’s father expanded his illegal activities by becoming a “station man” in various numbers games. Because he possessed an extensive record with the Birmingham police, Witt’s father asked his son to visit the homes of players, write down their numbers, and transport all of the bets to a headquarters located downtown. Anxious to please his father, Witt agreed. Despite the fact that he was helping his father, he was still the recipient of both physical and verbal abuse. Witt was ultimately expelled from the family home for three months.
Through his paper route and work at the bakery, Witt was able to accumulate a small bankroll. Still shy of the amount necessary for an entire year of tuition at Tuskegee, he had saved enough money to cover the $35.00 entrance fee and $35.00 quarterly charge needed to enroll at Miles College, a four-year African American Methodist Episcopal school located south of Birmingham. At the urging of two friends, he enrolled in the pre-med program at Miles College in September of 1939. He almost left the college immediately after he was caught helping a fellow student cheat on an entrance math exam. As he later recounted in his autobiography, the only thing that really forced Witt to stay was a large sign pasted onto the wall of the college that read, “Fees paid to the college will not be refunded.” “I had worked too hard for that thirty-five dollars to forfeit it.” he recalled in Witt’s End.
Witt remained in school and, on May 23, 1943, graduated cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree from Miles College. His only disappointment on that special day was that his mother was not present to share in his accomplishment. She had died early in his senior year. Witt then took another giant step towards realizing his life-long dream of becoming a doctor when he began classes at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee on June 23, 1943. He was one of only 66 students chosen from an applicant pool of 660. Having received a deferment from the draft in 1941, Witt then benefitted from the Department of the Army’s take-over of all 125 medical and dental schools in the country. In order to ensure adequate medical and dental personnel to cover wartime needs, the government agreed to assume all costs of medical education. As a result, Witt was able to complete his medical schooling at Meharry Medical College.
Witt was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, and inducted into the Army Specialized Training Program as a private. He promptly began to study medicine and military science. Despite the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the Army agreed to finance the conclusion of his studies. Witt remained in uniform, performed regular Army duties, studied military science for two hours weekly, and participated in daily drills, reveille, and retreat. On June 6, 1946, he graduated from Meharry, tenth in a class of 60 students, and received an honorable Army discharge. He was placed in the inactive Army Reserves for five years, with the rank of First Lieutenant, Medical Corps, and was subject to active duty call-up at any time during that period.
From 1946 until 1947, Witt followed a general internship at Harlem Hospital in New York. He then applied for a residency as an ear, eye, nose, and throat doctor (which at the time were grouped as one specialty). When he did not receive the appointment, Witt returned to the Birmingham area and established a general practice in Fairfield, Alabama in July of 1947. Unsure about remaining in the Birmingham area, the Army once again intervened to decide Witt’s fate. He was called up by the Army in July of 1949 and sent to Fort Bliss, Texas. The base had not had an African American medical officer for 100 years, and Witt did not see another African American for the first three months that he was stationed there. As he later recounted in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography, his only thought was, “The Lord has forsaken me! “As a first lieutenant, Witt was assigned to the general dispensary and predominantly treated headaches and backaches. After ten months there, he requested and received an overseas assignment to Europe. Witt was stationed as a captain in the urology department of William Beaumont General Hospital in Wurzburg, West Germany for the remaining 14 months of his assignment. The assignment allowed him to escape service in the Korean War.
When his Army tour of duty ended in 1951, Witt established an office for general practice in downtown Birmingham. Sadly, he discovered that the racism and segregation he had experienced there during his childhood was still in force. After two years in private practice, Witt returned to Meharry Medical College in 1953 for a one-year pediatric residency, followed by an additional year at Kern General Hospital in Bakersfield, California. Upon completion of his residency, Witt joined a colleague in establishing a private practice in the Los Angeles/Watts area. While serving as president of the Charles R. Drew Medical Society and continuing his private practice, he also became affiliated with the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital in Willowbrook, California. He later served for 17 years as a pediatrician with the Los Angeles City School System. In 1964, Witt took a sabbatical to complete a one-year fellowship awarded by the National Institute of Mental Health at the Los Angeles County General Hospital’s psychiatric service. In 1976, Witt and his wife, Cordelia, moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he opened a pediatric practice which he maintained until his retirement on December 31, 1980.
After six relaxing years in Las Vegas, Witt yearned to write his autobiography. The result of his eight to ten years of labor is Witt’s End. He wrote the autobiography completely in long-hand, and his wife dutifully typed each page. In the book, Witt examined his own life in incredible detail, and vividly recalled the events and people who influenced his life. As he told CBB, he also wrote Witt’s End for all children “who begin to find themselves down and out and don’t think they have anywhere to go.”
Witt’s End also emphasizes the importance of getting an education as a means of escaping the racism that still exists in the United States. As Witt explained to CBB, the book “is dedicated to all boys, girls, adolescents, and parents of the world, rich and poor. Study and make ready by doing well in school and some day your chance will come. Get that high school diploma and college degree. Just hang them on the wall if you want to delay using them. They can always be activated and utilized whenever you are ready.” In a warm, personable, unpretentious way, Witt holds up his own life as an embodiment of one who overcame the systemic prejudice of Alabama’s social and educational institutions, and surmounted the challenges and disappointments of his childhood to succeed in realizing his dreams.
Witt’s End, E&C Publishers, 1996.
Los Angeles Sentinel, June 24, 1999, p. C-7.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Contemporary Black Biography, June 2000; and press releases prepared by Edwin Witt’s literary agent.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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