By: Alicia Sands Lurry
Dozens of fifth graders at Thomasville Heights Elementary School welcomed Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, president emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine and former secretary of Health and Human Services, to their school’s annual Career Day program.
As special guest speaker, Dr. Sullivan shared his personal journey from his humble beginning as a child in south Georgia to a trailblazing pioneer, compassionate physician and healthcare advocate. During his talk, which was sponsored by the Atlanta Woman’s Club, Dr. Sullivan inspired students to aim for higher heights and work hard to become successful.
“I was really inspired by my teachers,” Dr. Sullivan told the captivated group of 50 fifth graders. “They taught me to aim high. Whether I wanted to be a business owner, doctor or lawyer, I knew as long as I worked hard, I could be anything I wanted.”
Born in 1933, Dr. Sullivan grew up in Jim Crow south Georgia. The son of a teacher and life insurance agent-turned funeral director, Dr. Sullivan shared his journey of attending segregated schools and how he was inspired by his politically active parents, as well the only Black physician in Blakely, Georgia, the small town where he was raised.
“Dr. Griffin was like magic,” he told students. “He could cure people, he had an impact on people’s lives, and I knew that since I liked science, I wanted to be just like him.”
Following his graduation from Booker T. Washington High School, Dr. Sullivan attended Morehouse College, and was further inspired by then-president Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who encouraged students to make their mark by living with integrity, honesty, being a good citizen, and improving the community.
A hematologist by training, Dr. Sullivan taught at Harvard University and other institutions before serving as founding dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine in 1975.
In 1989, Dr. Sullivan was tapped to serve as secretary for Health and Human Services. He used that role to advocate for gender, racial and ethnic diversity.
Wrapping up his talk, Dr. Sullivan encouraged students to continue their education and abstain from drugs and pursue healthy habits.
“You’re more in control of your life if you get an education,” he said. “No one can take that away from you. Focus on developing yourself and you’ll have a satisfying life. Learn as much as you can, plan for the future and work hard for it, and you will achieve.”