Charles Victor Roman was born July 4, 1864 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. His father, James William Roman was an escaped slave from Maryland who found refuge in Burford in Brant County, Ontario. There James met Anne Walker McGuin, the daughter of a fugitive slave. The two married shortly thereafter and moved to Williamsport.
His family moved back to Brant County when Charles was young, eventually settling in Dundas when Charles was twelve. Charles worked at the Cotton Mill during the day and took classes at night until age seventeen when he was involved in an accident at the mill and had his right leg amputated at the knee. Undeterred, Charles devoted himself to his studies. He briefly attended the Cannon Street School and then the Hamilton Collegiate Institute, where he became the first black student to graduate. A testament to his intelligence and dedication, Charles only needed two years to complete the four year program. Charles spoke of his desire to be doctor from a young age and wanted to study at McGill University. Because he lacked money for tuition, Charles Victor Roman travelled south and began teaching primary school in Kentucky and then later Tennessee. Although Charles hoped he would return to Canada for medical school, he boarded with a doctor who advised Charles to apply to Meharry Medical College in Nashville. Roman graduated from the college in 1890 and began practicing as a medical doctor in Clarksville, Tennessee and later Dallas, Texas.
Dr. Roman always sought more of himself, and completed post-graduate studies in Chicago before travelling to England where he specialized in ophthalmology. Roman then returned to Meharry Medical College where he founded its ophthalmology and otolaryngology department and began as an instructor. As a professor, Dr. Roman continued his own education at Fisk University where he earned a masters degree in history and philosophy. Dr. Roman would go on to become the director of the department of Health at Fisk University until his later years.
Dr. Charles Victor Roman’s achievements were not confined to his medical practice, as he played an active role in the National Medical Association. He served as the fifth president of the organization and helped to launch their academic journal in 1909, serving as the editor until 1919. Dr. Roman wrote articles on a number of topics including medicine as well as ethics, philosophy and race relations in North America. Roman was highly sought after as a lecturer because of his extensive knowledge and oration skills. He was the keynote speaker at many events in both the United States and Canada, even lecturing African American soldiers during World War I on the importance of sexual hygiene.
Dr. Roman was also heavily involved with the Methodist Church and returned to Canada in 1911 as a delegate to the Methodist conference in Toronto. He taught an adult Sunday school class at Nashville’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal church which was so popular the pastor invited Charles to address the full congregation.
Dr. Roman wrote over sixty articles and a few books in his career, many in his later life urging others of African descent to support the black communities in both Canada and the United States. Through these articles and his orations, Charles Victor Roman became known as a leading figure on race relations and an activist for the rights of African Americans and Canadians. To accomplish these goals, many of Dr. Roman’s articles highlighted the important contributions of African Americans throughout the history of the nation.
Sources are conflicted, but suggest that Charles and his wife, Margaret adopted a daughter in Nashville where the family lived after Dr. Roman conferred his degrees. Charles Victor Roman also took interest in his nephew, Charles Lightfoot Roman. Through Dr. Roman’s guidance and financial help, Charles Lightfoot Roman was able to attend and graduate from McGill University’s medical programs – one of Dr. Roman’s life dreams. Charles Lightfoot Roman became one of the first doctors to specialize in industrial accidents due to the accident suffered by his Uncle during his adolescence.
Dr. Charles Victor Roman died on August 25, 1934 in Nasvhille, Tennessee. He was well remembered by his colleagues in the United States, but also by his childhood friends from Dundas who wrote to him to wish him well in his pursuits in the United States. He was honoured by the National Medical Association with a scholarship awarded in his name as well as the Roman-Barnes Society of Ophthalmology which was created in 1968 as a network for African American physicians in Roman’s chosen field of medical study.
Because he worked at the Cotton Mill as a youngster, Dr. Roman is associated with that place in Discover Your Historical Dundas.
Thanks to the students of McMaster University Department of History for their assistance with this project.