Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential Mentorship and Support

BOND: Now, in moments like this or other moments, what have mentors done? I was thinking about Dr. Bernadine Healy who brought you where you are, people in the community. You mentioned going to church in Boston, meeting people through the sorority. What kind of support, if any, did these other people — ?

PINN: I’ve gotten support from places where I didn’t always necessarily expect it. For instance, after my mother died while I was still at Wellesley — and in those days, all your papers and exams were after vacation time, so I needed to write some papers and I needed books and I knew I was going to need to use the library in my hometown. Now, this is — we’re talking about 1961, '62. And I wrote to my father and said please find out if we can get some books from the library and what happened was that we were told that — now, this in the ’60s, this is long after 1954 — that I could not have access to the city library and, no, I could not have my high school librarian get books for me there. I was not allowed to use them. We checked with Lynchburg College, Randolph-Macon, Sweet Briar College — which were the colleges in the community and in my city — and were told that, no, I could not have access to the library. I could not take books out and I could not get somebody to get them for me.

Now, we didn’t have much money. I’d lost my mother, and I’m thinking, "What am I going to do? I can’t stay in Boston over the holidays. I want to go home but I’ve got to work on these papers." And I was just torn. I didn’t know what to do, especially after being in so-called integrated Boston and then still having to face these problems. And I had a college roommate whose mother was married to James Ramsey Ullman, the author, and I remember she came to me with an envelope and gave it to me. You know, roommates, they pay attention but they don’t pay attention. I was going through this. And I remembered this note. It was from James Ramsey Ullman who said, "Vivian, take this as a small token of my protest against segregation. Buy the books you need for your papers." And it was a check for $75.00, which at that point was a huge amount of money. I mean, I had met him. He was nice, but I had never talked to him.

It meant that my college roommate had taken my issues home to her family and here from someone I knew but was not very close to came some support which then really made a difference for me because it not only showed that people were thinking about me, but that I needed to get over this problem, just go ahead and what I needed to do because people had faith and confidence in me. And I’ve had a number of experiences like that where people I haven’t expected or didn’t think were really paying attention really were and were looking out for me.

Now, Bernadine Healy is another example and a different one. I had known her when she was a medical student. I was a resident when she was a Harvard medical student, but I didn’t think she’d remember me. She’s such an accomplished woman who’d done much and I had been sort of following her career. And she obviously had become very well known in the medical world and she was named as Director of the NIH and I thought, "She’ll never remember me. I remember when she was a medical student." And I ran into her at a meeting at the NIH and she said, "Oh, Vivian, come talk to me." And I thought, "Oh sure, I’m going to go talk to the Director of NIH," and I said, "Thank you," and I just never called. And I got a call to come out to — that she wanted to meet with me and I said — And it was on Tuesday at ten a.m. and I said, "But I’ve got lectures at eight." They said, "That’s the only time she has and she wants to see you." So I said, "Okay, I’ll be there," and I came in to see her.

I wasn’t sure what she wanted and she said, "Vivian, I’ve been following your career. I remember when you were a resident and I was a medical student. We’ve got this new office. Why don’t you come out and head up this new office of women’s health at NIH?" Happened like that. And the media loved it. They called it the old girls network and I think it really was, but here’s someone from my past that I had known who gave me an opportunity that I never would’ve pursued. I never would’ve thought to apply for a position such as this and it’s really made a difference in my life.

I just have loved what we’re doing, but it put me in a whole ‘nother realm of opportunity, a whole ‘nother realm of career. And I also think that her support for what I wanted to do in this position made a difference. So, yes, I’m very proud of knowing her and I am very grateful to her for allowing me to — and actually bringing me into this situation and providing the support that I think really made the difference in bringing women’s health research off the ground.