Feb 9, 2024 - News

The legacy of Dr. Lula Belle, Michigan's first Black female pediatric cardiologist

A split frame of a doctor on the left and a historic house on the right

Lula Belle Stewart-Robinson practicing medicine in Detroit, and the Stewart-Robinson house at 8633 Dexter Ave. Photos: Courtesy of Michael Robinson (left) and the Historic Designation Advisory Council report (right).

A home where a groundbreaking doctor practiced humanitarian medicine could soon be designated as historic.

Why it matters: Lula Belle Stewart-Robinson — the first Black woman to be a pediatric cardiologist in Michigan — led a career that reverberates to this day in civil rights and health care equity.

  • Stewart-Robinson saw patients out of her house in Detroit's Petoskey-Otsego neighborhood starting in 1955, per a historic designation board report.
  • She died in 1965 at age 45 from leukemia. Her husband, educator and civil rights activist Phil Robinson, helped build a social services agency alongside colleagues and organizations that continued her legacy by serving local young mothers and others for more than 30 years.
  • The Lula Belle Stewart Center became a national model for serving teens and expectant parents.

Driving the news: Their youngest son, Michael Robinson, 66, tells Axios he now lives in the renovated home.

  • The city approached Michael Robinson about the designation while seeking to honor women of Detroit's history, he says.
  • Memorializing the property as a city historic district still requires a City Council hearing, scheduled for Feb. 29, and approval, which Michael Robinson expects to happen around April.

What's next: Michael Robinson, an IT professional, and his two siblings aim to start a nonprofit serving young people in the community. The tech-focused base of operations would be at the historic home, continuing in their parents' footsteps.

Flashback: Stewart-Robinson was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1920 and received her M.D. in 1944. She was the only Black woman in her 1952 pediatrics graduate program, per the report.

  • She moved to join her husband in Detroit, and they opened the home practice together in 1955 in the two-family brick flat.
  • As the doctor's career grew, she became a leader in cardiology. "In the mid-1960s, Dr. Stewart-Robinson was on staff at Children's Hospital, Harper Hospital, Grace Hospital, Crittenton Maternity Hospital and Detroit Memorial Hospital in addition to being a clinical instructor at Wayne (State) University," the report reads.

Plus, the couple opened the Linwood Medical Center in the 1960s to serve the holistic needs of nearby residents.

  • The building it was housed in still stands at 12815 Linwood St., long after Phil Robinson stood in front of it to protect it during the 1967 Uprising.
  • That was around two years after his wife's death left a "void" in their family.
  • All this happened in a decade that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the president.

Details: Stewart-Robinson received local and national recognition for humanitarian and scientific achievements.

  • Notably, she delivered Aretha Franklin's first child, Clarence Franklin, per the report.

Context: Stewart-Robinson advocated for those hurt by generational racial health and financial disparities that continue to contribute to illness and mortality rates today.

  • "There were times when many of the patients were not able to pay … my mother said, 'The baby's sick, they will be treated, period,'" Michael Robinson says.
  • "That was part of her absolute commitment to humanity, and my father was the same."

The bottom line: The couple faced momentous challenges and "they didn't just survive, they changed the world," says Michael Robinson. He has heard from other people who say their family members wouldn't have survived without his mother.

  • "Even since she is gone, she has still been ever-present, and like an angel, through thousands and thousands of people."

Go deeper: Read the full report on the proposed historic district

A split photo of a couple on their wedding day on the left and a doctor on the right
Lula Belle Stewart-Robinson and Phil Robinson's wedding; Stewart-Robinson's photo used for her application to medical school. Photos: Courtesy of Michael Robinson

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Phil Robinson helped build the social services agency with colleagues and organizations.

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