Remembering Velma

I am at the age where the death of friends and relatives is not shocking, but that doesn’t make the loss any easier. Today is my godmother’s funeral at Mayflower Congregational Church in Detroit. As I try to make peace with this reality, here is what I want you to know about her:

Her name is Velma Lewis Ward.

She was born December 27, 1929 in Salem, Michigan.

She was not raised by and did not know her parents.

She was raised on a farm by a black man, born in 1892, who was a gentle spirit and deaf later in his life. Everyone called him "Gramps."

Aunt Velma milked cows as a girl.

She attended the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

She had freckles, wore glasses, and had thick, beautiful hair.

She is survived by one child, a son, whom she raised alone.

As a girl she wanted to be a doctor.

A counselor at her high school, Northville High, suggested a career in cosmetology instead.

Aunt Velma was one of the first black women to get a PhD in biochemistry from Wayne State University School of Medicine.

She thought that the failure to use black people in medical trials had negative effects on our health and the diagnosis of illness in our community.

She said “molecules don’t give you the whole picture” of a person.

She became a Medical Anthropologist.

She did research on coronary disease in older African Americans and contributed greatly to understanding the role of ethnicity in the health care experience.

She never talked about her accomplishments.

She had friends from all walks of life.

She believed in astrology.

She didn’t really care for the shape of her nose.

She was a feminist.

She authored or assisted in numerous scientific publications.

She told me as Capricorns we were susceptible to problems with our joints.

Upon seeing my oldest child as a baby, she remarked, “He’s perfect. Keep that formula!”

She researched the cultural impact of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings.

She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

She was the first African American to address the Society of Biological Psychiatry.

She had an uncanny ability to remember many facts, data, details, and dates from the recent past and decades before. Her son has this ability also.

She was a member of The Royal Society of Chemistry as a Chartered Chemist.

She lived for decades in a house on Littlefield in Detroit.

She loved music.

She said in a 2004 interview, “Whatever talents you have, you need to use to the best of your ability for humanity.”

She mentored and influenced many younger people.

Her voice was soft and you had to lean in to hear her when she spoke.

She left this earth on September 2, 2011.


  1. I feel like I met her. This is a great way to remember her and to introduce what was obviously an incredible person to those who did not know her. RIP.

  2. Thanks Steph. Look for an email from me

  3. Go on Aunt Velma! What an inspiration. I'm sorry for your loss, but how fortunate you were to have had her in your life.

    And by the way, as a Capricorn, she is so right about that joint thing...
    Tammee (Leimert Park)

  4. I just found your blog and this was wonderful to read. I feel like I know Aunt Velma. What an amazing woman. Thank you for sharing that.