First in a series marking Black History Month
Raleigh C. Bledsoe, MD, a radiologist whose 32-year career with the Southern California Permanente Medical Group began at the South Bay Medical Center (Harbor City), accomplished a series of trailblazing firsts for his country, his profession and the advancement of black physicians.
Raymond Kay, MD, co-founder of Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, recalled bristling when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union urged SCPMG in the early 1950s to hire black physicians.
“I remember one big union (the ILWU) got me up in front of their board, and they said ‘We don’t think you’re getting enough black doctors,’ said Kay, the SCPMG medical director.
“I said, ‘If your union in any way wants to invade our right to pick the doctors on their qualities, then I’d rather you pull your union out of the health plan.’”
Kay was open to diversity on the medical staff but felt the selection should be made on merit.
“I really wanted to pick the doctors on their qualities . . . I didn't want to put us in a position where (people) would say we were black or Jewish or Korean or something. So I tried to keep a good balance. But I never took a doctor unless I thought he was of the caliber I wanted. And then I didn't care what his or her color was.”
The impetus for more black doctors came from Bill Chester, civil rights and community leader for the ILWU. Chester campaigned for more blacks in all industries during the 1950s and 1960s.
“We went into every aspect of community life. We encouraged our black members to deposit with savings and loan associations run by blacks. The union did business with Kaiser Hospital, so we met with Edgar Kaiser and said (that) we wanted some black interns and black physicians on the staff,” said Chester in his 2004 ILWU oral history.
In 1954, Harbor City Medical Director Ira “Buck” Wallin, MD, hired Dr. Bledsoe, who became the first black physician on the SCPMG medical staff and the first board-certified black radiologist west of the Rockies.
Dr. Bledsoe had earned an excellent professional reputation and came with enthusiastic references from medical school faculty and colleagues. According to a 1997 obituary published in “Radiology” magazine, Bledsoe had already achieved a distinguished career in the U.S. Army while completing his medical education and training.
A native of Texas, Bledsoe attended Compton College and the University of California, Los Angeles. While serving in the Army, Bledsoe earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Tennessee.
After interning at Los Angeles County General Hospital, Bledsoe served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1945-48 and was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. He later completed his residency in radiology at the University of Southern California.
Although Dr. Bledsoe had the support of his Permanente colleagues, it took some time before Harbor City’s members accepted a black physician. Dr. Wallin was warned that people would be upset: “We had longshoremen that stormed out. I got a letter threatening my wife,” he said.
Pete Moore, ILWU regional director in the 1950s, remembers one longshoreman complaining to him about his wife seeing a black doctor at Harbor City. “He didn’t want her to be treated by a black doctor. I told him, ‘hey, get out of the plan. Join the alternative plan,’ and he did.”
So when it came time for Bledsoe to become a partner in the medical group, the battle lines were drawn. Bledsoe was well-liked and competent.
“The doctors saw that if Bledsoe could be kept out because of his race, they were going to be very disappointed in the medical group,” Wallin said. “I had a meeting with Lynn Solomon, MD, Jim Roorda, MD, Walter Cohen, MD, Billie Moore, MD, Harry Shragg, MD, and the other doctors.
“I told Ray (Kay), ‘You’d better talk to us. You have a chance of losing about two-thirds of us. I’m going to submit Raleigh Bledsoe’s name for partnership.’”
Bledsoe made partner, and he stayed more than 30 years in the SCPMG. In 1965, he transferred to the newly opened West Los Angeles Medical Center and served as chief of Radiology until his retirement in 1986, becoming one of the longest serving chiefs in Kaiser Permanente’s history.
During his career, Dr. Bledsoe designed the radiology units for three hospitals and eight clinics, including the selection of equipment, development of policies and procedures, and the hiring of the radiologists.
Harry Shragg, MD, a colleague of Bledsoe, fondly recalled memories of his friend in a 1986 oral history: “Raleigh was probably, as a diagnostic radiologist, as fine a radiologist as I’ve ever seen and known . . . He was always on the cutting edge of radiology, a constant student, a teacher, a kind man whom anybody would be proud to know.”
Dr. Bledsoe passed away in 1996.
Michael Pucci, senior communications consultant in the Kaiser Permanente Hawaii Region Brand Communications and Public Relations Department, and Heritage writer Ginny McPartland collaborated on this story. The article was first published in the South Bay (Harbor City) service area’s 60th Anniversary book in 2010.