Physician Leaves Lasting Legacy Of Advocacy

A Rocky Mount native who was a pioneering trailblazer and one of the most respected doctors at Duke University recently passed away.

Dr. Brenda Estelle Armstrong, who is remembered for leaving a long legacy of advocacy, inclusion and service in the community and at Duke University School of Medicine where she worked for more than 20 years, died on Oct. 7 at age 69.

Despite living in Durham, Armstrong reportedly said in interviews that she was raised in segregated Rocky Mount and instilled with a desire to give back and help her community. Armstrong graduated from the former Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st District was a childhood family friend of the renowned physician.

“America has lost a giant in the medical profession,” Butterfield said. “She will long be loved and remembered by her family, friends, patients and students. Rest in peace, my dear friend.”

Armstrong was the second black woman to become a board-certified pediatric cardiologist in the United States. She was among the first black students to attend Duke University in the 1960s. During her first years the university functioned as a desegregated institution, according to reports.

As a Duke student, Armstrong was a member of the Afro-American Society, which organized the Allen Building Takeover in 1969.  The day consisted of 60 black students who protested the racial atmosphere on campus as they barricaded themselves in one of the university’s main administration buildings and demanded the university add an African-American studies department, a black student union and more enrollment and financial support for black students.

Claudia Richardson, former medical director at Opportunities Industrialization Center in Rocky Mount, said Armstrong represented to her what was possible in education and in health care for a black woman from Eastern North Carolina. 

Richardson, who met Armstrong as a student at Duke, knew of Armstrong when she was in high school. She added their fathers were contemporaries, with Richardson’s father being a physician in Ahoske and Armstrong’s father, Dr. W.T. Armstrong, a nationally renowned physician, in Rocky Mount.

Richardson said Armstrong spoke to youth groups frequently and encouraged them to pursue their goals.

“Her fearlessness and resiliency enabled her to utilize the platform afforded to her as an academic professor at Duke Hospital and in the Duke community at large,” she said. “She shed light on the issue of health inequity before it received its recent due attention. Her personal family stories in health care inequity inform some of my work currently. She encouraged all and stressed the importance of reaching back to help others.”

Maureen Cullins, director of the multicultural resource center at Duke University School of Medicine who had known Armstrong for more than 30 years, said she was a stalwart for justice. Armstrong’s most recent role was serving as senior associate dean for student diversity, recruitment and retention at Duke’s School of Medicine.

Dr. Delbert R. Wigfall, associate dean of medical education and co-director of multicultural resource center professor of pediatrics, said Armstrong was mostly responsible for black and students of color at Duke’s University School of Medicine rising from between 5 to 10 percent to 25 percent.

For decades, Duke’s University School of Medicine was the leading school in the country for recruiting African-American men to medical school and largely because of Armstrong, he added.

“She was largely responsible for creating and maintaining diversity among the classes of medical students who attended this university’s school of medicine,” Cullins said. “She was instrumential in bringing the university’s attention to its poor relationship with African-Americans and people of color and catalyzing change for the better in those relationships.”

Wigfall said Armstrong was a consummate pediatric cardiologist, who was savvy, smart and would advocate for her patients to get the best of care whether it was medical, surgical or a combination of both. 

“She was a role model for me in terms of professional achievements and advancements,” he said. “The kind of reach and impact she had is extraordinary, and there is no way to replace her. I will miss her attitude, laughter, presence and friendship.”

Armstrong leaves behind three sons, BradLee, Benjamin and Davontay Armstrong. Funeral arrangements for Armstrong are incomplete and will be announced by William Toney's Funeral Home in Spring Hope.




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