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Oscar Winner John Ridley's Father Talks About Life Before Desegregation

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If you followed the Oscars, you might know that the man who won "Best Screenwriter” is a Mequon native. John Ridley helped create the best picture winner, 12 Years a Slave.

Dr. John Ridley with three of his grandchildren in 2007.

WUWM sat down with John Ridley's father a few years back to chat, as part of it's Life's Voices series.

The older John Ridley practiced ophthalmology in Milwaukee for more than three decades before retiring in 2001.

He grew up in Indiana during World War II, when segregation was part of American life. Ridley was three years old when his mother died, so his father and a close-knit circle of relatives raised him.

Dr. Ridley says with all the attention and encouragement he received, he felt an obligation to succeed.

In 1961, he was invited to do his medical residency in Milwaukee. By then Ridley was married and had children.

“We stopped at hotels along Hwy 41 coming into town and there would be vacancy signs. I’d go in and couldn’t get a room. But finally there was a motel that had a main building and several little cottages and the manager said we could stay in one of the cottages,” Ridley says.

Ridley took his family to eat at an adjacent restaurant and says as they left, Ridley says several young white men surrounded their car and verbally harassed them.

“And they told us to get out of there and never come back. And I had my family there and I was supposed to be the protector of them. It was a horrible experience. This was what America was like. Where was I going to go that was any better?” Ridley says.

A prominent ophthalmologist in Milwaukee offered Dr. Ridley a position with his team.

“He did that over the objection of his two partners who said, this is a mistake; our patients aren’t going to like having a black person in the office,” Ridley says.

Ridley didn’t learn about their opposition until years later, at the end of his mentor’s life.

Ridley says his own father didn’t live to see him finish medical school. Ridley says his admiration for his father ran deeper than words could describe.

“My father was the first person to college; he went to college a year at a time, drop out and then he’d work and send a friend of his to college. He’d drop out and send my father to college,” Ridley says.

Ridley believed there was nothing his father could not have achieved.

“My dad was my hero. He was such a good speaker and so intelligent and gregarious. Had he been a child of this age, or my age, I don’t know what he could have been,” Ridley says.

Dr. Ridley has been able to enjoy his own son's success, he was in the audience at the Oscars on Sunday night.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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