When James Booker entered the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU) School of Dentistry in 1958, segregation was still in effect. And though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled four years earlier that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal, Virginia was resisting integration.
Booker, a Richmond native who graduated from Armstrong High School and Hampton Institute, broke the racial barrier at the dental school and became its first black graduate in 1961. His death at age 73 on July 29, in Roseville, Calif., after a battle with multiple myeloma, brought back memories for some of his contemporaries. The decision by then-Dean Harry Lyons to admit Booker was not welcomed by everyone. Dr. Joseph H. Morgan, a classmate, recalls that a group of fellow students hung an effigy of Booker in the student laboratory when he was a freshman. "Some of us were appalled, and of course, [the group responsible] thought it was funny." But Booker kept his focus on work, says Morgan, who has a practice in Henrico County. "He was a very humble guy, did his job and was an excellent student."
Booker's wife of 24 years, Rita Booker, recalls him saying the experience was difficult and that he was limited to working with black patients for his student clinical practice. After practicing dentistry for a couple of years, "he realized his true passion was medicine." Booker graduated from Howard University's College of Medicine in 1968 and later practiced trauma surgery and became a flight surgeon in the Air Force and Reserves, retiring as a colonel in 1996.