Born in East Nashville in the early 1950s, Andre Churchwell was the second of five children born to Robert and Mary Henderson Churchwell. He grew up at a time when ripples of the civil rights movement were growing into gentle waves, an enlightenment was coming and Nashville was at the center of it all.
By the time Andre was born, his father had already broken a barrier as the first black man to be hired as a full-time journalist for a white-owned Southern newspaper.
It may have been a business decision to expand readership in the African American community that led Nashville Banner publisher James Stahlman to hire Robert, but it also was a social statement.
Robert Churchwell would become known as the “Jackie Robinson of journalism.” Along the way, the Churchwell children learned how to affect change in their own way.
“(Dad) and mom had a super sipping sauce and we just got a chance to enjoy the potion,” Andre said in a phone interview.
He described his father as a voracious reader, a lover of literature who became a writer.
“Dad inculcated lessons to five children in a house he built. Mamma still lives in that house at the age of 99.”
Education was important to Robert and Mary. Both were college graduates and professionals. Mary taught in Nashville’s public school system for 30 years. However, the true revelation of the value of learning was in the largest room in the house: the den, which served as a library, with shelves filled with books.
“For years, it was the only room with an air conditioning unit,” Andre recalled, chuckling at the memory. “It was a way to tempt us kids into reading. When we were reading, we could go anywhere. When I read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” I could be in Spain in a bull ring. Great reading and writing can transport and provide great experiences.”
Andre described his parents as firm but loving and encouraging. They set standards and instilled a love for learning.
“I think he hoped I’d be a writer. I do write once in a while,” he said. “All the papers I ever wrote, I submitted to him until I was in my 40s.”
The Churchwells prepared their children to face an often-harsh world with confidence, patience, kindness and strength.
“They told us we’re going to have to know more, study harder and make better grades,” Andre said. “Dad inculcated us to put steel in our veins so we could withstand the turbulent moments. He told us, ‘You’ve got to define who you are.’ He built up our self-image to withstand those moments, and it became a part of our armor.”
Robert and Mary made sure that their children were aware of their surroundings — who and what was around them and the people they surround themselves with, their friends, their enemies and their “frienemies.”
They taught skills for navigating through life, offered advice on choosing good mentors along the way and encouraged them to be true to their own mission.
“Mentors exhibit a model life,” Andre said. “A good mentor is willing me through life with life lessons. The right mentors open doors to lives — the good, the bad, the ugly, even the failures — how to learn from them. I sought people like that.”
Each of the Churchwell children absorbed their parents’ wisdom. Robert Jr. went into education and is now a middle school principal, Andre is a renowned cardiologist, Marisa is a special-education teacher, Kevin is a pediatrician and Keith is also a cardiologist.
Andre graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering in 1975.
Although he was fascinated with math and science, he also enjoyed being with people. When it came to choosing the next chapter of his journey, he took the path of service through medicine over service in a research lab and headed off to Harvard University Medical School, where the lessons his parents instilled in him became more poignant.
“I experienced some micro-aggressions here,” he said. “I had more problems in Boston.”
Andre recalled an incident when he was heading to his dorm room. It was dark and “some Irish kids” chased him down several streets before he lost them.
He graduated from Harvard in 1979 and began a journey of service, breaking barriers and creating opportunities for others. He did his internship, residency and cardiology fellowship at Emory Medical Center and affiliated hospitals in Atlanta and moved on to Grady Memorial Hospital as the first African American chief medical resident (1984-85).
In 1986, he returned to Emory, where he was named the most outstanding house
officer, became an honorary Moorehouse Medical School class member and received the Harold Amos/Robert Woods Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Faculty Development Award.
A cardiovascular disease specialist, he has been practicing medicine for 41 years. His walls are filled with awards and honors.
He is interim vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer for Vanderbilt University, advocating for diversity in the classroom and the workplace.
But he says his most cherished titles are that of husband for 38 years to Doreatha, a nurse educator at Vanderbilt, father to Crystal and Andre Jr., brother to Robert Jr., Marisa, Kevin and Keith and son of Robert and Mary.
Carole Robinson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.