Billy Kyle takes the train to Chattanooga

Did you know that Jim Crow laws remained in effect for the better part of a century? Enacted in the wake of the Civil War to establish “separate but equal” status for black Americans, they were enforced in southern states between 1876 and 1965. Jim Crow laws were a major catalyst for the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities to escape segregation, among them Billy Kyle’s parents, who moved to Detroit from Missouri and Arkansas, respectively.

Billy Kyle’s mother was a beautician and an X-ray technician; his father was a musician and worked at the Ford Motor Company. “He lost the index finger and the thumb of his right handworking at Ford’s Factory,” Kyle recalls. “After the injury, he played trombone and worked for Hudton’s, a high-end department store where he was the first African American to be in charge of the elevators. Later on he went back to Ford’s.”

The son inherited his father’s love of music. He attended Howard University in Washington, a special music student, dropping out shortly after Pearl enlist in the Army and returning on the GI Bill. Kyle played piano and loved it but wasn’t positive he was good enough, so he majored in chemistry and zoology and decided to go into medicine. Listen to the clip below to hear how the young veteran reached Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1948. (It’s eerily reminiscent of what happened to Homer Plessy 56 years earlier, in 1892. One-eighth “Negro”, he was arrested when he refused to move to the “coloreds-only” car after divulging his lineage to the East Louisiana Railway train conductor. He lost the lawsuit.) The refusal of black soldiers returning from World War II to tolerate such treatment helped fuel the Civil Rights movement. Plessy v. Ferguson was finally overturned in 1954.

Kyle graduated from medical school in 1952 at the age of 32, and moved to Detroit after an internship in Toledo, Ohio, and a residency in Durham, NC. Kyle found that he wasn’t welcome on most hospital staffs, even after getting board certified. “We couldn’t work. They found ways to keep you back,” he recalls. He’d be turned down because he didn’t belong to the Wayne County Medical Society. Then the Michigan Medical Society. Then “of course, the AMA.” Kyle persevered, building up a thriving general practice, then going back for a residency and specializing in general surgery.

His son joined the practice in 1992, and Kyle stopped doing hospital surgery in 1997. He’s still in the office 25 hours a week, practicing general medicine and doing outpatient surgery. “It’s changed some now. The young guys come out and they can get on all the staffs,” he observes. “But there’s still a lot of things that go on, you know.”

I don’t know, but I can guess. What I really wonder is what it’s been like for Kyle’s son, who was born during the heyday of the Civil Rights era. How has this different place in history shaped the workforce history and aspirations of black professionals of my generation? How might it affect their retirement plans and goals?

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