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Washtenaw United: The history of African Americans in health care

Versell Smith, Jr., executive director of the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti
The Corner Health Center
Versell Smith, Jr., executive director of the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Versell Smith, Jr. is a proud native Ann Arborite, and a graduate of the University of Michigan. He is universally celebrated as a distinguished non-profit leader with over 15 years of experience working in arts management, fund development, governance, and strategic planning. As a transformational leader, Versell inspires creativity, dedication and excellence. He is passionate about the outstanding work that is being done in Washtenaw County, and is deeply committed to ensuring that nonprofits continue to address health inequities that are ever present in our community. Through his work at the Corner and as Chairman of the St. Joe’s board of directors, Versell works diligently to support diversity, equity, and inclusion as a way of intentionally building a healthy and vibrant community.


The Corner Health Center

Corner Health Event Calendar

Corner Health Center Donation Page


Since 2019, United Way of Washtenaw County has invested in Corner Health through the FY20 COVID Community Relief Fund, FY21 State of Michigan Rapid Response Grant (MPHI), and the FY21 General Operating Support Grant, totaling nearly $67K invested in the organization since 2019.

Corner Health System Group
The Corner Health Center
Corner Health System Group


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and each Monday through the month of February, we're utilizing this weekly feature to highlight Black History Month. Now we're certainly going to reflect, but also look at the history being written today that will help shape this and future generations. The theme of Black History Month in 2022 is Black Health and Wellness, and that happens to be the current career focus of our guest today. Versell Smith Jr. is executive director of the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, and it's good to have you back on WEMU, Versell.

Versell Smith, Jr.: Thank you, David, and thank you for inviting me. It's my pleasure to be here.

David Fair: So, I'm just making an assumption here, but I think it's a fairly safe one. How big did you smile when you learned the theme of Black History Month would be Black Health and wellness?

Versell Smith, Jr.: Let's just say it was a Steinway grand piano smile.

David Fair: That's kind of what I figured. How does that theme work in concert with the mission of the Corner Health Center?

Versell Smith, Jr.: Well, you know, our mission is really to address the health inequities and to celebrate the achievements of our African-American ancestors. And as I, you know, saw the theme and sort of thought about what is it that Corner can do to really celebrate that and educate our our patients. I, you know, learned that there were so many trailblazers, and some that were not known to myself or even to our patients or community or staff. And so, it was a perfect opportunity for us to highlight those trailblazers who really made a difference in health care and who were addressing health inequities way before. You know, we undertook this as a mission.

David Fair: Well, the history of African-Americans in health care presentation that you have put forth online--and I had the opportunity to go through--runs from 1660 to 1990. So, when you say there is a long history of working to equalize the inequities that we see that has been underway for centuries. So, what went into creating this project?

Versell Smith, Jr.: Well, so I spoke with one of our consultants, Bob Smith, who's a history consultant in the Detroit area. And, you know, it was important for us to select those representatives from not only a broad cross-section, but also geographically. So, when you look at the presentation, you will see that there are local heroes through University of Michigan physicians, you'll see that there are state as well as national, you know, individuals who are representatives. For example, when we look at Jane Minor, who was an enslaved healing practitioner and who, because of her healing acumen, she was released from slavery. And, you know, that her name is one that is not widely known or explored, and even, you know, going through, you know, the Dunbar Hospital in Detroit, which was founded just, you know--

David Fair: That was the first African-American hospital in Michigan.

Versell Smith, Jr.: Correct. Exactly, exactly. So, I think it's important to highlight the local regional as well as, you know, international achievements of our Black people.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU and we're talking history of African-Americans in health care with Versell Smith Jr., the executive director of the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti. And I know that I learned a lot and it only inspired me to want to learn more. For today's kids and today's generation to get exposed and learn about these people, you think it has just inherent value for both the present and future?

Versell Smith, Jr.: I absolutely believe that. You know, one of the core elements of the Corner Health Center is to focus on health and wellness, and wellness as a part of our mission. And so, the more information and education you can provide to them, the more they can be, you know, better stewards of their own health. So, as we look to the future and as we address, you know, health inequities and opportunities for holistic care and holistic health for our young people, it's important for them to not only know where they've been, but to be able to imagine, you know, this continuation of greatness and this continuation of commitment to excellence. And I'm hoping that this slide presentation does that--ignites in them a sense of curiosity that they will self reflect on themselves in their lives and make good, solid health choices to keep themselves healthy.

David Fair: One of the things that works so successfully is having people of color see people that look like them in positions of success and creating their own opportunities, and that is certainly what this presentation does. You mentioned that there are some local notables, just Dr. Henry Fitzbutler in 1870 became the first African-American to graduate from the U of M Medical School. In 1885, Dr. Sophia B. Jones became the first African-American woman to graduate from U of M Medical School. She went on to create the first training program for nurses at Spellman College. Dr. Ida Gray was the first African-American woman to earn a dental degree after graduating from the U of M School of Dentistry and was the first to own a dental practice. And, again, this is all information from the presentation that's available to all of us online. Dr. Alexa Irene Kennedy graduated Cum Laude from the U of M and went on to become the first African-American female pediatric neurosurgeon in the United States. And your presentation notes that, along the way, she faced just a great deal of prejudice, and it's that I want to follow up on. That prejudice exists in many areas and arenas today. Did you personally run into that as you work your way up to and through college and on into your professional life?

Versell Smith, Jr.: Well, I think that we all encountered bias or whether it's implicit or intentional bias, but absolutely. And it's something that we cannot, you know, completely get away from. And even though our mission is to help to eradicate it, but to address it. But, conversely, I also had a tremendous amount of support. Having grown up in Ann Arbor and attended the University of Michigan, you know, I did have access to an incredible education, and also, you know, the role of mentorship was so key in my life to help me deal with and understand the role that racism and bias plays in our career development. And just as I learned from my mentors, I also have mentees that I helped to, you know, coach through that. We have several therapists at the unit at the Corner Health Center who also help our young people understand that and how do they navigate it. And, here again, that's one of the unique qualities of the Corner Health Center. We are beyond a safety net clinic. We are an integrative health center, and we provide additional opportunities for health and wellness and education, so that if a young person has a question about that, then we embrace it. We don't step away from it. We don't ignore it. It's important to empower them with useful guidance and tools to help them to understand how to navigate, you know, racism and bias.

David Fair: As we take the broad look at the United States, sometimes it can be overwhelming, and things can seem somewhat dire. But if you use the magnifying glass and get right down into the heart of most communities, you will find that there are good works going on and progress is and can still be made. What is your level of optimism that the next generation of nonprofit leaders of nurses, doctors, and caretakers are not going to face as much personal and systemic racism?

Versell Smith, Jr.: Well, I'm entirely optimistic. I think that, you know, particularly through the lens of Washtenaw County and the relationship that I have with my peers and my colleagues, and the commitment even from a fundraising and donor perspective, when I released this presentation, I heard from many, many colleagues, either from St. Joe's Board or U of M physicians and some of our donors. Not only did they thank me, but they shared personal stories that they had with some of the, you know, physicians and trailblazers who were profiled. So, and that was from, you know, white as well as Black, you know, donors. And so, it was just nice to hear directly from them. And that sort of inspired me, because I know that here in Washtenaw County, we are doing the work. I'm optimistic. I don't think it's going to be easy, but I absolutely think that there is a path forward and that path will lead to us, you know, creating a better community for all.

David Fair: As we mark Black History Month and look forward 100 years, somebody is going to be writing the history of Washtenaw County of today. And with that in mind, what would you like written about you and the work of the Corner Health Center?

Versell Smith, Jr.: Well, I think it's important for to highlight our commitment and my commitment to really empowering young people. Under my vision, with my vision, I'm committed to, you know, make the Corner Health Center be the provider of choice to thousands of youth and young adults, you know, who trust us as experts in child and adolescent health care. And through our work, my commitment to not only diversifying our staff, but our commitment to addressing health inequities. That is a way to honor the legacy of our Black ancestors. And we do that by serving patient by patient.

David Fair: Thank you so much for the time today. I'm grateful.

Versell Smith, Jr.: Thank you, David. It's my pleasure.

David Fair: Versell Smith Jr. is executive director of the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti and our guest on another Black History Month edition of Washtenaw United. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. We have referenced several times a slide show display on Black History Month and Black Americans in health care, some local notables as well. It is all available to you at the Corner Health Center web site, and you can go to our web site at WEMU dot org, and we'll link you up. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR Station 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD1 Ypsilanti.

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