The Journey of a Healer
Dr. Margaret Cornelia Morgan Lawrence was born in Mississippi, 94 years ago, the daughter of an Episcopal priest and her mother, a schoolteacher. The Morgans lived in towns like Mound Bayou, Widewater, and Vicksburg. In the 1920s, Margaret went to high school in Harlem, under the watchful eyes of her grandmother and various aunts and uncles. She went on to become a pediatrician and renowned child psychiatrist.
She and her husband Charles moved to Pomona, New York, as founding members of Skyview Acres, a cooperative community in Rockland County. There they raised their three children””Charles, Sara, and Paula. Charles is law professor at the University of Hawaii; Sara is education professor at Harvard and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship; and Paula is an Episcopal priest, lecturer, and author in Philadelphia.
Charles, the father, died in 1986. He was professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, and national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Lawrences were the first African-American members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Spring Valley, New York, which Margaret still attends and still sits in the pew where she and Charles sat. They both were members of the vestry and she says that Charles was the one who introduced what she fondly calls the “galloping peace” that St. Paul’s has become known for.
During the writing of this sermon, I recently spent a long afternoon with Margaret, and that conversation, along with her biography, Balm in Gilead by her daughter Sara, and a special issue of Fellowship magazine on “Listening to the Wisdom of the Elders” (Sept./Oct. 2001) in which I interviewed her, helped me prepare these reflections.
Growing up in the Deep South, Margaret experienced the brutal presence of racism. She heard about lynchings on the next block, of blacks tarred and feathered. When she was eleven her white playmate said she couldn’t play with her anymore because she was black. At home she experienced a different kind of racism where white was considered beautiful, and black, ugly. Her one sibling died after only eighteen months of life. They called him “candy man,” a child with white skin and golden curls. A large portrait of him dominated the living room and Margaret dreamed of herself as dead, laid out in a casket beneath the portrait. She had aunts who had light features and were told they could “pass for white” and therefore should not marry a black man.
At the same time Margaret learned self-strength and pride in her family. As a little girl she would answer the phone. If the caller asked for ”˜Morgan’ she would proudly say, “Do you mean my father, the Rev. Mr. Morgan?”
After high school Margaret received a scholarship to study at Cornell University, where she was the only black undergraduate on the campus. She was not allowed to stay in a campus dorm but placed with a white family where she did washing and ironing and cleaning, eating in the kitchen and sleeping in the cold attic. Despite an excellent academic record, She was turned down in applying for the Cornell Medical School. The reason? She was told that “twenty-five years ago there was a Negro man admitted and it didn’t work out. He got tuberculosis.” She was subsequently admitted to Columbia University but only after she gave assurances that she would not protest if a white patient refused to be seen by her.
At Columbia Medical School, she was the third African American and the second African-American woman to attend the school. She one of only ten women in a class of one hundred and four, where she experienced sexist as well as racist obstacles to overcome. While a student at Columbia, she had to take a literacy test to vote in a presidential election and was sometimes stopped on the street and offered “day work.”
Columbia’s Babies Hospital did not give her an internship because she was not allowed to stay in the nurses residence due to her color. Her training in pediatrics was at Harlem Hospital and those years opened her to the struggles of poor urban blacks as well as this country’s pervasive racism regardless of one’s class or education. She persisted despite the prejudice and difficulties along the way.
Not only did she face difficulties because of her race and gender at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Center, she also experienced prejudice because she was religious! She found that religious people were stereotyped as superstitious and dependent. These roadblocks to her personal and professional development, however, rather than defeating her, helped her to achieve enormous inner strength as she in time became recognized as a pioneering child psychiatrist.
In Dr. Lawrence’s subsequent practice over the years, a recurring theme is inner strength, strength that victims can summon in the face of adversity. She says, “Strength abounds in Harlem. Three hundred years of oppression and it survives. This is the task in Harlem, to see strength where it exists, to expect it to be there, right there, next to, and a part of nature, nurture and noxia. Even anger may show strength. It can sustain a child and protect him until he is helped to find more suitable vehicles for his ability to love and to act.”
A great part of the story of Margaret Lawrence is her life with her beloved husband, Charles. She was from a family of strong-willed women with strong uncertainty about the trustworthiness of men. But in Charles, Margaret found a strong, wise, compassionate life partner. He shared fully in the responsibilities of parenthood, helping feed the children, changing their diapers, reading to them, playing with them. He fully supported his wife’s ambitions as a doctor, something many at the time felt was wildly idealistic and unachievable for a black woman. Their early years in the South tested their high ideals, their faith, and their love for one another. They shared a commitment to public service and were Christian pacifists””quite a challenge in World War II and Cold War days!
Margaret taught at Meharry Medical College and Charles taught at Fisk University. Both were active in their own careers, yet both created an animated household that nurtured and encouraged the creative potential of each member, often to the astonishment of those accustomed to the rigidities of hierarchical and conformist patterns of family life. Sara writes in Balm in Gilead, “Intimacy and trust were not the enemies of strength and independence” as Margaret had been taught. “It was the opposite: out of a deepening love relationship came the courage to pursue independent endeavors.”
At Harlem Hospital, Margaret made the connections between peoples physical well-being and the social ills that had such devastating consequences on their lives. Her developing activism embraced such areas as medical care for the poor and better working conditions for the hospital staff. She saw the devastating impact of racism and militarism on social and cultural values. Her social vision also affected her work as a therapist: she said that a therapist’s work was not designed simply to maintain the status quo, to make impoverished people accept injustice. Healing inspires a changed view of old, unproductive conditions she maintains.
A deeply religious person, she is rooted in public worship, prayer and Bible study. She has been an active leader in the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In the year 1988 she participated in the 85-mile peace march to Canterbury sponsored by the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. The oldest person on the march, she slept in church basements on her sleeping bag and stirred proper English congregations with her joyful “The Peace of the Lord be with you!” On the way to Canterbury, she stopped to pray at the cell of the great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. Lady Julian and Hildegard of Bingen are two of her spiritual guides. She was in Johannesburg for the enthronement of Desmond Tutu as the Archbishop of Southern Africa.
She has in her home in Skyview Acres, a healing pool that looks out to the surrounding woods. Blessed by the Sisters of the Convent of St. Helena, it is named Siloam, from the story of Jesus healing the blind man in the pool of Siloam (John 9). In the morning she gets in the pool and meditates, exercises, and prays. She answers affirmatively to the cry of the Prophet Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead, no physician there?”(Jeremiah 8:22)
At 94, she continues the journey of a healer. Thanks be to God!
By Richard Deats on 02/19/2009