Beverly Hills – — Michigan's highest-ranking African-American official delivered a message of determination and dignity Thursday at Detroit Country Day School, telling a crowd of fathers and sons how his father quietly battled discrimination to become a physician in Detroit.
Robert Young Jr., named alumnus of the year in 1999, was invited to return to the school for its 26th annual Father-Son Breakfast as part of its centennial celebration.
Nearly 300 dads and sons, dining on pancakes and sausage, listened to the Harvard-educated jurist reminisce about his days as a student and being the father of two grown children, as well as relating the tremendous odds his father overcame.
"My father was the quiet one in the family," Young said. "But when he did say something, it was impactful."
Young said his father, who died seven years ago, was one of the first African-American physicians to build his own clinic in Detroit, but wasn't able to finance it because of discriminatory practices. "A Jewish friend bought the building and then my father had to buy it from him," he said.
The chief justice recounted examples of the Jim Crow environment his father was subjected to while living in South Carolina in the 1920s.
"Once, as a child, my father had exhausted the books in the library for blacks, wandered into a white library and was physically thrown out," Young said. "He had no prospects, but decided at an early age to become a physician, which was an amazing leap of faith, being part of a community that sees you as absolutely worthless."
The chief justice's stories resonated with John Moray and his son, Jared Pazner, 15, a freshman from Franklin.
"His perspective was very interesting," said Moray. "When he went down South with his dad when he was a child, and saw the separate things for blacks and whites — we didn't see things like that here as kids."
Jared said what stayed with him was the respect Young demonstrated for his father.
"He has a very high regard for his dad and I think that's really cool," he said.
Ninth-grader Christopher Gilmer-Hill, 14, said he thought the chief justice's remarks were interesting. He attended the breakfast with his father, Carl Gilmer-Hill of Beverly Hills.
"I learned a lot about what it was like for his father when he was growing up," Christopher said.
Young said he graduated from Detroit Country Day School 45 years ago, when it was an all-boys school.
The school's centennial anniversary officially launched on the first day of classes Sept. 1. Events still to come will be a centennial gala March 21 at the Henry Ford Museum, a weeklong "celebrate the arts" event this spring, and Community Service Month in April.
Headmaster Glen Shilling said the school is proud to count Young among its "distinguished alumni."
"Chief Justice Young exemplifies the philosophy of Detroit Country Day School through his impressive scholarship and leadership qualities, drive to achieve and longstanding commitment to community," he said.