The road into Milwaukee between West Capitol Drive and West Walnut Street – formerly North 5th Street – will now be known as Dr. William Finlayson Street.
Finlayson, a beloved obstetrician and gynecologist who practiced for nearly 40 years, welcomed thousands of babies into the world. The Florida-born physician became the first black OB-GYN to now work at St. Joseph Hospital Ascension Southeast Wisconsin Hospital – St. Joseph.
In addition to giving birth to thousands of babies, Finlayson was a champion at eradicating housing discrimination, financial literacy, and preserving black history.
Given its indelible impact on the community, the The city council voted Tuesday to rename the street in honor of Finlayson, where Alderman Russell Stamper III described Finlayson as a legend in the city, county and country.
Alderman Milele Coggs echoed that sentiment, saying, “The impact and influence of Dr. Finlayson is felt through the life and work of so many people in the City of Milwaukee, and I am honored that a street in Bronzeville is named in his honor.”
Early influences shaped Finlayson’s path
Although he was born in 1924, at a time when overt racism hindered the advancement of many African Americans, Finlayson’s success was predictable in many ways because of his personal drive and early influences, according to a oral history he delivered in 2008.
Finlayson’s mother, Alba, had been in college for several years and taught in Orlando at Jones High School. His father, James, was a respected and well-known baptismal minister. In elementary school, one of his teachers was the black inventor and scientist George Washington Carver. And one of his childhood friends at Campbell High School was a girl who would grow up to be the Bethune Cookman UniversityMary McLeod Bethune.
Surrounded by these influences, Finlayson excelled in the educational field Florida A&Mthe historically black school of his two older sisters, at age 16.
He spent two years there, solemnly Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, before serving in the United States Army for two years. There he taught illiterate black soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia to read, and was promoted to 2nd lieutenant.
While serving in the Army Reserves between 1946 and 1953, Finlayson also attended Atlanta’s Morehouse Collegewhere he was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Finlayson made Milwaukee home
After changing his initial business major, Finlayson graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 as a pre-med student. He spent a year working with his half-brother’s waiting tables in dining cars on the Ohio Railroad before returning to his studies at Jerry Medical College.
In 1957 Finlayson was tutored by obstetrician Carr Treherne and began his residency at the University of Minnesota Medical School. When he graduated, he had three choices: Chicago, Atlanta, or Milwaukee.
He chose Milwaukee.
In Milwaukee, he began practicing at St. Joseph Hospital, Mt. Sinai Hospital and the University of Wisconsin Medical School. And with a group of other doctors – Walter White, Randall Pollard, George Hillard and Gerald Poindexter – he opened a private practice.
He made the move to Milwaukee with his late wife, Edith, who later became a Congressional recognition for her work in Milwaukee. Edith, also the child of a Baptist minister, became the first black member of the Church Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin and the first black nurse Veterans Administration of Milwaukee. Edith was also active at the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Milwaukee Area Technical College, National Council of Christians and Jews, Milwaukee Urban League, NAACP and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.
But almost immediately they encountered discrimination.
Like other black doctors, Finlyason was initially banned from treating white patients. He was also turned down when he tried to buy a lot in an all-white neighborhood, leading him to join fair house marches directed by Alderman Vel Phillips and Father James Groppi In the 1960s.
He even invited his former classmate, King, to speak in Milwaukee. As Coggs noted, “(Finlayson) was instrumental in often helping to bring MLK to the city of Milwaukee.”
Finlayson also founded the city’s first black bank, State Bank of North Milwaukee, in 1971 and served on the bank’s board for several years. He founded the WEB Du Bois Club to educate high school students with financial skills and black history, even visiting Ghana, the last country Du Bois called home.
Throughout his career, Finlayson served as president of the Cream City Medical Society, Milwaukee Gynecological Association and his local YMCA board. He also served as vice president of United Community Services (now United Way of Greated Milwaukee & Waukesha County), a delegate to the Wisconsin Medical Societyand a member of the National Urban League and was a lifetime NAACP member.
Finlayson officially retired after 39 years of working with patients.
The streets where his practice was once located are now home to other culturally significant organizations: the Greater Milwaukee Urban League is located where the practice used to be on North 5th Street and West North Avenue, while the WNOV radio station took the place of his practice on North 20th Street and West Capitol Drive.
The elevation of Finlayson’s name follows other efforts to highlight the contributions of black pioneers, including the streets renamed in honor Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Vel R Phillips and the recognition of architect by the Milwaukee Fire Department Alonzo Robinson Jr.
However, Coggs said this particular street naming was made more special by the presence of Finlayson.
“We get a chance to give Dr. Finalyson his flowers while he’s here,” Coggs noted. “At 98 years old, I am proud that we have the opportunity for him to witness and know the appreciation so many of us have for the contributions he has made in the lives of so many.”
Finlayson attended the vote along with his daughter and two sons – Sheila, Reginald and James – as well as several prominent Milwaukee residents, including his fraternity brother Andre Ashe and Reverend Monk of Ephesians Missionary Baptist Church.