In the view of Selwyn M. Vickers, MD, FACS, people join hands across generations, as the past teaches lessons to the present that indelibly shape the future.
“For everyone here,” he told the assembled staff of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center after becoming President and CEO in 2022, “there’s someone who came before you and made sacrifices for you to be where you are today, whether that’s a family member or a loved one.”
And so it is with his own family. Their story resonates especially during Black History Month because Dr. Vickers’ family embodies so many aspects of the Black experience in America, including personal excellence, resistance to inequality and racism, and a deep wellspring of resilience passed down from one generation to the next.
Resilience Against All Odds
For Dr. Vickers, that sense of the connection linking past and present “really begins with my grandparents,” he says. “My maternal grandmother was a seminal figure in my life,” he explains. “In the 1920s, she was a Black woman in rural Alabama who had a desire for a college education when less than 3% of the country went to college.”
Bessie Merriweather let nothing deter her. “She had to travel 120 miles to get her high school degree,” Dr. Vickers recalls, “and it took her 10 summers to get her bachelor’s degree.” He continues, “She taught school for 42 years, raised three daughters (including my mother), and became a stalwart in her community.”
Dr. Vickers says: “She instilled in me that in life, education is the great equalizer.”
His paternal grandfather, John Vickers, was just as remarkable. Dr. Vickers says, “My grandfather only finished the fourth grade because, at the time, it was believed that African American men didn’t need any training beyond the fourth or fifth grade.”
Dr. Vickers points out with pride: “Until he was 44, my grandfather with a fourth grade education signed his name with an X. But then he went back to school to teach himself how to read and write. He became the mayor of his town, a Baptist minister, and met the President of the United States.”
Dr. Vickers says of his grandfather: “He instilled in our family the value of leadership, a culture of faith, and doing good to help transform institutions and people’s lives.”
Resistance to Racism
Dr. Vickers’ parents, John and Clara Vickers, participated in some of the most seismic events of the 20th century, while setting an example for their family that bears fruit today.
Dr. Vickers says both his mother and father nurtured the family’s passion for education by becoming educators themselves. “My father was one of the first African Americans to get a PhD from the University of Alabama,” says Dr. Vickers. “In fact, out of his 13 siblings, 4 hold doctorate degrees.”
But the family’s accomplishments did not shield them from horrible discrimination.
In 2020, John Vickers reflected on his life for the oral history project Story Corps, along with Dr. Vickers and Dr. Vickers’ daughter, Adrienne, who is also a physician.
John Vickers recalls joining the U.S. military in the 1950s and traveling by train to the West Coast to ship out for the Korean War. “We sat in a segregated car, with smoke blowing right in our faces.” He remembers: “In Korea, I wondered, ‘Why am I here fighting this war when I’m treated as less than a citizen in the U.S.?’ Still, I took an oath to defend the Constitution and the flag, so I paid my dues.”
Back home in Alabama after the war, he tried to register to vote. But he was denied, as he would have been in many states in America. “The election officials knew I was a college graduate and a veteran. But they wouldn’t let me vote. It angered me that I had fought for the flag but the flag did not honor me to vote,” says John Vickers. “So in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, I began to attend meetings in Montgomery, Alabama, with Martin Luther King.”
His activism had swift repercussions. “After one year of teaching, I was fired because of my stance against segregation,” he recalls. “Technically, I was barred from teaching in Alabama because I did not believe in that way of life. But finally, the Lord blessed me, and I was able to get back into education.”
Dr. Vickers’ mother, Clara, was also an educator. Like her husband, she also lost a teaching job for resisting segregation. Dr. Vickers says: “My mom really instilled in me the value of faith, family, and friends, as well as to value the individual person along your journey in life. Today, this as much as anything affects how you interact and how you make people feel.”
His parents’ stance against segregation had another lifelong effect on Dr. Vickers: hard work.
John Vickers explains his approach after losing his job for opposing discrimination: “I diversified my opportunities so I wouldn’t have to rely solely on education for food and shelter for my family.”
Dr. Vickers says: “I never knew my father to have less than three jobs. He would be a school principal and go to graduate school. Then on Sunday, he helped run a funeral home.” He continues, “As a young kid, rather than play basketball or baseball, I would help him in a junkyard to harvest copper to make extra money.”
“The result,” says Dr. Vickers, “is that he instilled in me a culture of hard work, and that there was value in knowing how to extend yourself to really work hard.”
Today, Dr. Vickers says he tries to model those same values for his own grown children. His daughter, Adrienne, who is a surgeon resident, says the teachings have really hit home. “My grandfather and my father have definitely set a picture of excellence and hard work for me and my siblings,” she says. “My father always told us that with hard work, you can be whatever you want to be. And we’ve seen that with him and his career.”
For Dr. Vickers, his family’s history is testament to the importance of resilience and always trying your best, a lesson that has spanned generations. “We may not have had every opportunity walking in the door. But once we got inside, we were not going to stay in last place for long. If the playing ground was fair, we would achieve.”