Robert W. Claytor, born September 26, 1897 to a farming couple in Floyd County, Virginia, was the youngest of 13 children. As youths, Claytor’s parents were slaves in the pre-Civil War South. To obtain his education Claytor traveled 250 miles from home to attend a black high school, Virginia Normal Industrial Institute, in Christiansburg, VA, because he wasn’t allowed into the all-white facility two miles from his home. He graduated from high school at age twenty-five.
He enrolled in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, but he left convinced there was no future for blacks in business at that time. He entered Northwestern University in Chicago where he received his Bachelor of Science degree. He was refused entry into medical school at Northwestern because the quota for African-American students was filled. Not giving up, he entered Meharry School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated in 1934.
Because job opportunities were limited in the South Claytor decided to settle in Grand Rapids where, in 1936, he became the area’s third black doctor. His first office was above the Burkhead and Collins Drug Store at the southeast corner of Monroe Avenue and Michigan Street. During the 1950’s he moved his practice to 1424 Madison Ave. SE.
Dr. Claytor received privileges at Saint Mary’s Hospital shortly after his arrival. His acceptance at Butterworth took another 10 years and the intervention of Bishop Lewis Bliss, a member of the hospital’s governing board and former head of what is now St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, who threatened to resign from the hospital board if Claytor was not appointed. Bishop Bliss and Claytor were co-founders of the Brough Community Association which evolved into the Grand Rapids Urban League.
Claytor was a highly respected citizen and pillar of the Grand Rapids community. He was named “Family Physician of the Year” in 1976 by the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians. They also honored Dr. Claytor in 1984 for 50 years of family practice. Claytor died February 27, 1989, after a long illness. In 1997, St. Mary’s Health Care honored Dr. Claytor by naming their new health center at Hall and Madison the Browning Claytor Health Center.
He was married to Helen Claytor, who has separate entries in Michigan History: Day by Day.
Cindy Lang, “Dr. Robert W. and Helen J. Claytor”, HistoryGrandRapids.org, April 13, 2010.