"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Dr. Brenda Armstrong has taken her favorite quote to heart. She was a member of one of the first classes at Duke to include African-American students and the only African-American woman in her medical school class at St. Louis University for three of her four years there. Armstrong is distinguished as the second Black woman in the United States to become a board-certified pediatric cardiologist.
Armstrong is currently a Professor, Associate Dean, and Director of Admissions at Duke’s School of Medicine. Her current research interests focus on gender- and race-based disparity in medical education. She is known for recruiting the most diverse classes in Duke Medical School history.
In high school, she turned down an opportunity to go to an exclusive New England private school in favor of staying at Booker T. Washington Senior High School in segregated Rocky Mount, North Carolina and learned important life lessons. "My passion about equality and what happens when there is none, about the power of education--all forms of education, about service, about investment in children, about ‘doing’ instead of ‘whining’, about achieving in spite of obstacles, about history and how it informs destiny---all of these I learned because I chose to stay in that space in the South instead of running away to a more protected place where it might have been easier, but wouldn't have prepared me for the reality that I would face as an adult Black woman."
At Duke, Armstrong demonstrated her commitment to racial equality on campus as one of the founding members of the Afro-American Society and as its President at the time of the legendary Allen Building Takeover in February, 1969. She reflects, "In choosing to confront Duke, we students carved a place in history for ourselves. Our enduring legacy would be one of leadership, commitment, and extraordinary academic and professional productivity. And on our shoulders would stand generations of Black students to complete our unfinished business at Duke."
She credits her mother as her inspiration and life-defining role model. "One generation removed from slavery and share-cropping, she managed to complete college at Shaw University, and obtain a Masters in English Literature from Columbia University. She was the consummate academic--an avid reader of all kinds of literature, appreciated the arts and made sure that we did also, a woman of extraordinary physical beauty and grace, a regal presence, a dark-skinned, West Indian (now called Afro-Caribbean) woman, a proud, activist Black woman, the personification of multi-tasking when it wasn't a known entity, a dream-weaver to us, a woman who knew no limits and passed that and our incredibly important history as a people who survived, to her children and every child that she taught. I learned about strength, and integrity, honor, character, ambition, that intellect trumps everything else, that I had more power between my ears than between any other parts of my body, and that I owed who I would become to many in my family and community who made incredible sacrifices so that I would have a chance. My success would be because of the ancestors who were pushing me ahead. The payback was to be the best that I could be, to dream and make my dreams come true, and to not forget to bring as many along with me as I could. I was truly blessed to be her daughter, and I have tried all of my adult life to honor everything that she gave to me by being the woman that she hoped I would become."
Bringing along as many as she can, Armstrong considers mentoring her most important job. "Even though it's not good for 'productivity,' I let the students spend as much time as they need with the patients and with me. You never know on which student it will have a life-changing impact. I just think part of your responsibility for having had good opportunities yourself is to give something back."
Armstrong's family provides her with strength. "My ancestors, my wonderful father and mother and their large extended, accomplished, and ambitious families and my sons, all adopted, and all deserving of the same chances that I have had, give my life reason, hope, reassurance, purpose, and extraordinary happiness."
When asked to offer advice to first-year women, Armstrong responded, "The four years of college will be the most important of your lives. Your horizons will broaden, your circle of friends will change and define you for the remainder of your lives, your values will be tested and then cemented, your lives will be changed, and your sensibilities transformed in ways that you cannot imagine. Irrespective of where you come from, you will be expected to be people who value life, respect difference for its power, respect your bodies and your minds, and dream without boundaries."