My father, Thomas Melvin Batchelor was born on February 16, 1920 in Hamtramck, Michigan – a small city next to Detroit. He was two months premature and had head full of white hair that would soon turn into the flaming red hair he was know for in his youth along with a million freckles.
According to my grandmother, the doctor who delivered my dad said, “If he makes it through the night, he’s got a chance”. Fighter that he was, Dad not only made it through that night, but went on to survive a childhood of poverty during the Great Depression.
Even though he grew up without material things, Dad always remembered the best from those days. He used to tell us stories about those days and even laugh about wearing “welfare” plaid flannel shirts and having to eat chicken toes. I’ve always wondered if he was just pulling my leg about that.
When Dad was about 12, he injured his leg in a fall on the ice. Not having money for a doctor, Grandma took my father to a faith healer. He ended up with a bone infection that landed him in a convalescent home for a year. Remember, this was before penicillin or any other antibiotics. The treatment was grueling and Dad had to wear a built-up shoe for years after.
My father’s disability never kept him from being a straight “A” student and graduating from high school with honors. Many years later, I recall Dad’s extreme interest in every report card I brought home and his annual display of every one of his report cards from 1st-12th grade. All “A”s and one “B”!!! Truly a tough act to follow.
Dad went on to major in art at Wayne State University (WSU) with a full scholarship and according to him – 2 pairs of pants which he wore all 4 years until they were shiny and paper-thin from being ironed so much.
During the time he was in undergrad, my grandmother was the “help” for the dean of WSU’s med school. One day the dean asked Gram if my dad would consider becoming a doctor because it was a better career path for a “colored boy” instead of art.
Dad apparently thought so too and applied to medical school. He had to wait a year to get in because back then, the Wayne State University med school only took two African American and two Jewish students in a class. While he waited, Dad got his masters in pathology. Once he was admitted to med school, his life was full steam ahead. During that time though, racial tensions were heating up in Detroit.
One summer night in 1943, Dad was on a date on Belle Isle. Belle Isle is a small island and public park in the middle of the river between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. There are a myriad of stories about how the riots started – depending on who you heard it from. All involved a young Black child and the Belle Isle bridge – where my father was walking with his date.
Dad ended up being right in the middle of what became a violent race riot and his leg was injured again. I was an adult before he would ever share any details of that night with me. Even then he wouldn’t talk much about the horrors he saw that night as one of the first victims of the Detroit’s 1943 race riots.
Despite yet another injury, Dad went on to excel in medical school. And he met and fell in love with Alice Vivian Dickinson, a smart and beautiful young woman from Cleveland, Ohio – my mom. While my father finished med school, Mom taught school. They had great plans that were soon derailed by an unexpected roadblock.
Dad developed another infection in his leg and the doctors recommended yet another year in a convalescent home. Here he was in his last year of school with a coveted internship waiting, a new wife – and someone was telling him to sit on the sidelines. Dad said “no way” and told the doctors to amputate his leg at the knee. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my father achieving his goals – not even his own leg!
Dad sped through recovery and graduated with honors in the top 10% of his class – or so he thought. It wasn’t until he retired from the practice of medicine 54 years later, that my father learned he had graduated first in his class – an honor we believe was denied him because of his race. But that was the special thing about my father. He never let anything get in the way – race, illness, adversity and especially not lack of confidence.
The 83 years of my father’s life weren’t easy. But he lived a life filled with amazing goals and achievements, laughter and inspiration that never seems to end even though Dad passed away on October 24, 2002.
My father left a legacy of wonderful memories, family history and lessons, the most important one – that anything is possible. His faith in possibilities was passed down to me and continues to be the beacon that lights my way through life and the ups and downs of doing Black genealogy.
Love you, Dad. Always, always.