Community Room named in honor of public health pioneer Paul B. Cornely

Cornely headshot

heritage project: "The Dignity of Man"

Public health pioneer Dr. Paul B. Cornely had an impactful career in health and education over five decades and was particularly engaged in issues of health equity for Black Americans. 

Cornely was a lifelong educator, teaching at Howard University from 1934 to 1973. He was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement and led several historic desegregation initiatives in medicine and education. He was a three-time graduate of the University of Michigan, earning a BA in 1928, an MD in 1931, and a PhD in 1934. He was the first Black person in the United States to earn a doctoral degree in public health.

paul cornely timeline

The Community Room in the School of Public Health was named in his honor during a dedication ceremony April 8.

“Dr. Cornely was a giant not only in the field of public health, but also in the history of the United States,” said F. DuBois Bowman, dean of Michigan Public Health. “We are grateful for the opportunity to add his name to the central gathering place in our building, where his legacy will be remembered daily. Thank you to the students who initiated this effort and to the many donors who have generously supported this worthy recognition.”dean bowman speaking to a group

In the 1950s and early ’60s, Cornely spearheaded the Imhotep National Conference, encouraging the desegregation of hospitals in the US. Cornely’s involvement in the movement helped lead the way to the landmark US Supreme Court case Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in 1964, forcing integration of the nation’s hospitals. 

His work also was significant in the civil rights movement in the ’60s. In 1963, Cornely served as medical coordinator during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He also organized the Black Caucus of Health Workers that has supported Black public health workers since its inception in 1968.

Cornely was honored by the University of Michigan with an honorary degree in 1968, and this is the first physical space named in his honor at his alma mater. 

In July 2020, a trio of students along with 25 School of Public Health student organizations signed a letter advocating for Cornely’s inclusion within the building. 

dean bowman with faculty and student

“We believe that such an overdue honor will remind the community of the rich historical contributions by Black people to the School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and broader field of public health so often overlooked and forgotten,” wrote Joshua Tucker, MPH ’21; Kyra Freeman, MPH ’21; and PhD student Anton Avanceña, the lead authors of the letter.

As part of the student advocacy, the school embarked on a unique process to raise funds to support a variety of diversity initiatives. Numerous donors supported the effort, and their generosity will provide funding for student support, pipeline programs for those underrepresented in the field of public health, and the school’s strategic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives. 

I am proud of how our students advocated for this well-deserved honor.

-Dean Bowman

“Our students are committed to health equity, and sometimes that can mean helping to shine a light on a part of our past that was largely untold. Thanks to their advocacy and our committed donors, we will be able to honor a prominent Black figure in public health and support programming into the future.”

The Paul B. Cornely Community Room (1680) sits at the heart of the School of Public Health on the first floor of SPH 1. Located just off the main lobby, the Community Room serves as a primary gathering space for school events, as well as a flexible space for classes and studying. 

The room soars two stories high, and a wall of windows on the north side invites in natural light during all seasons. The room connects to a large auditorium and to the Courtyard of SPH 1, an outdoor gathering space. Since the Community Room’s addition in the mid-2000s following a major renovation at the School of Public Health, the room has been home to numerous memorable occasions and celebrations.