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What's Up Magazine

Dr. Faye Wilson Allen

Mar 02, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous

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There is a silent “joyful noise” that surrounds Faye Wilson Allen. It is the sound of a lifetime of breaking down barriers.

Lieutenant Governor Michael S. Steele has called her “A great Marylander and a great American.” Carl O. Snowden, longtime activist and now intergovernmental relations officer for the county, describes her as “a pioneer and pathfinder in this community.”

84-year-old Dr. Faye, as she is affectionately known, was the first African American female doctor in the county and practiced when female phy sicians were still an anomaly. She worked side by side with her husband, Dr. Aris T. Allen, in a joint practice they ran for 3 decades. Although she now struggles with severe osteoarthritis that requires a walker and an aide who assists her, that doesn’t keep her from attending church or lunching with sister members of the Delta Tau Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha or with members of Links, a sorority of charismatic, connected African Americans.

Yevola Peters, recently retired former head of the Community Action Agency (now Community Action Partnership), notes: “She has been a motivator and has inspired many persons to obtain an education and strive for excellence, but has always done so quietly and without publicity. I doubt very seriously if Dr. Faye realizes the impact she has had on so many people.”

Dr. Faye was born in Springfield, Ohio, the oldest of five children; she is the only surviving one. Her great-grandparents were slaves and a grandmother was from Ireland. The jazz singer and actress Nancy Wilson is a distant cousin; her father, James Alexander Wilson, was a World War II veteran and a coal miner; and her mother, Nora Alice Watson, worked as a domestic. She describes her parents as “hard-working progressive landowners. I got my work ethic from my father.”

“I helped raise my two brothers and surviving sister—one died as a toddler,” Dr. Faye recounts. “We attended a one-room schoolhouse, and we were the only black students there. I finished high school in 2 years. I never graduated, I just went on to college when I got the credits I needed.”

She headed to Ohio State University with a dream of becoming “the black Florence Nightingale.” The college was supposedly integrated, but black clubs and sororities were not allowed to meet or hold functions on campus. Further, in a Catch-22, students could not enter the nursing program if they didn’t live on campus. And blacks were not allowed to live in campus dormitories.

Facing the same discriminatory rules, the Jewish students financed and built their own dorm. When Dr. Faye challenged the school’s “rules,” administrators backed down. In a visit she paid to the school’s president, accompanied by her attorney, the president turned his back on her and walked to a window. “I’ll allow you to come here,” he sniffed. “But, I think you’ll regret it.”

She was housed, alone, in a room in the Jewish dorm, and was the first African American allowed to live on campus and the first to enter the nursing program.

“I’d already spent many of my years being the only black on a white campus, I could handle it,” she smiled wryly. “I delighted in being number one in the class. I spent hours studying. None of my white classmates played with me to distract me. If I had to stay up all night to be tops or two pages ahead, I did it.”

Her mantra was: “If you speak to me, I speak to you. If you’re nasty to me, I ignore you.”

Still, the insults continued. After Dr. Faye had been in college 2 years, the director of the university’s nursing school was willing to recommend her highly to any other nursing school the young black woman wanted to attend—but not her own.

It was one of the most traumatic and humiliating times in my life,” Dr. Faye recounts, visibly upset. It was the first time anyone put such an overtly racist roadblock in her path. A group of outraged white students and parents visited her, telling her the decision was unfair. They were beginning to understand the effects of institutional racism.

She headed to nursing school at what was then known as Freedman’s Hospital, now a part of Howard University, and received her nursing degree with the highest average achieved at that institution in 23 years.

Dr. Moses Young, who taught both medical and nursing students, suggested she consider medical school convincing her that her Ohio State credits would ensure she could do her premed studies in 1 year—and he was on the Howard University medical school’s board of admissions. The day after she graduated from nursing school, she began summer school for premed studies.

Working 40-hour weeks as a nurse to pay her living and college expenses, Dr. Faye received her medical degree from Howard and interned at the Freedman’s Hospital. With Dr. Aris, she had her own practice for 30 years. After they retired the practice in 1982, she worked an additional 8 years in the county health department.

Two-Career Courtship

She met her husband at Howard. “He didn’t want a career wife,” she says. The first time he asked her to marry him, she informed him, “‘I do not fit your employment requirements. You need a maid to clean and a dog to fetch your slippers.’ He agreed and we parted.” Six months later, he was back at her door. “I made up my mind. I don’t want to marry anybody but you,” he entreated her. “I think we can work it out. We can do anything together.”

The next few years were busy ones. By the time she graduated, they were the parents of a 2-year-old—Aris T. Allen Jr. During her internship, she was pregnant with her second child, Lonnie Watson Allen, who arrived in 1950. As her internship ended, Dr. Aris went into the army at age 35. Undeterred, Dr. Faye set up her private practice in Annapolis.

Passing of an Icon

The Allens were actively involved in local politics: they both joined the Maryland Republican Party and Dr. Aris served as its head, the first African American in the country to head up a state Republican Party. “Aris and I changed parties early because when we came to Annapolis, the Republican Party was more accepting then than the Democratic Party,” she says. Though the couple rose to the top in local politics, their years in Annapolis were not without controversy and tragedy. Their younger son, Lonnie, died on July 19, 1999, of a perforated ulcer, a peritonitis infection that had been misdiagnosed as a urinary tract infection.

Aris Jr., now 58, was attacked and beaten in junior high school by a band of white youths who left him on the sidewalk with a concussion.

“You belong here as much as anyone else,” his mother remembers telling the teen. “You have a right to attend this school.”

Her husband’s death, at age 80, of a self-inflicted shotgun blast, sent shock waves through the region in February 1991. More than 1600 people attended his funeral. In October 1992, Patuxent Boulevard was renamed in his honor. A life-size sculpture depicting Dr. Aris from the waist up was created and set in a nearby pocket park, to honor his legacy, in November of 1994.

Dr. Faye rarely discusses her husband’s passing, but, as a doctor, she understood her husband’s motivation in killing himself. Shortly after his election in the fall of 1990, Dr. Aris was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer. “Aris was a healthy, strong, active person. He was elected to office at age 80. He had regular health exams, had his own teeth, and didn’t need reading glasses. He left before he looked sickly,” she said.

He often told her, “I want to leave with my boots on.”

Dr. Faye had a premonition when there was a knock on her door just before 6 p.m. on February 8, 1991. The couple’s handyman stood there with a sealed envelope in his hand. Dr. Aris had instructed him to deliver it at precisely that moment, just before his wife usually switched on the 6 o’clock news. It contained explicit directions for his funeral and service. Dr. Aris had shot himself in his car outside the family’s church and knew a program was scheduled there at 4 p.m. that day and anticipated he would be found then.

“He listed the songs to sing, the timing of the ceremony at our church, Mt. Moriah Church on Bay Ridge, how many minutes it should last. He just wanted friends and family at the service, because,” she smiles, “he didn’t want any enemies to sit through all the services.”

Her pride and joy these days is her first great-grandchild, Nadia Lonnie Allen, who arrived in December. “We haven’t had any babies around in the family for awhile. We were very excited,” she enthuses adding she has three grandchildren and one step-grandson.

A Mentor and Grande Dame

Annapolis High School guidance counselor Deborah Gideon has fond memories of Dr. Faye, who was her pediatrician and also served as her mother’s doctor. When Mrs. Gideon’s mother was crippled with arthritis and had trouble getting out of the house, Dr. Faye made house calls. “I remember once when she was examining my mom in my room, she looked on my dresser and saw that I was not taking my iron pills. I was touched that she cared enough to speak to me about it.” Mrs. Gideon noted Dr. Faye is still active in the community. “She sponsors a scholarship from the Women of Color in the name of Anne Arundel Medical Center each year. She was so excited when my daughter Julia received the scholarship in 2000. Dr. Faye and I have worked together in the Annapolis Chapter of the Links on programs that serve the youth.

“She has always been a role model for me and I see her as a Grande Dame.”