History of the National Optometric Association
It was late spring of 1969 when 25 African American optometrists gathered resolutely at the Executive Motor Hotel in Richmond, Virginia to make history. Hosted by several Richmond optometrists, the meeting was called by Dr. C. Clayton Powell of Atlanta, Georgia and Dr. John L. Howlette of Richmond, Virginia. The purpose of their gathering was to establish a nationally recognized optometric organization comprised of black doctors.
For some time, Drs. Powell and Howlette had tried to generate support for such an organization. They introduced their idea often in a monthly newsletter, the NOA Journal, which they funded, published and distributed to a list of approximately twenty-five black optometrists nationwide. Even though their numbers were relatively few, the new National Optometric Association did not begin without opposition. From those who were against the idea, there emerged one consistent grievance: African American optometrists had worked hard to integrate society as well as the predominantly white American Optometric Association (AOA). The naysayers regarded the efforts of Drs. Powell and Howlette as re-segregation. In their minds, the NOA was a step backward.
Dr. C. Clayton Powell and Dr. John Howlette saw things differently being the visionary leaders that they were. In Richmond, they assured the convention that the NOA would not be anti-AOA or a competitor with the well established, 20,000 member AOA. They also had no plans to re-segregate optometrists. Rather, they argued, the NOA would give black optometrists a solid voice in and outside of the AOA. So, in 1969, the National Optometric Association was officially launched with charter officers being Dr. Powell as president and Dr. Howlette as vice-president.
The Early Years
Co-Founder, Dr. C. Clayton Powell, served as President of the NOA from 1969-1974. As with most new organizations, the National Optometric Association was off to an ambitious, exhilarating and controversial start. The American Optometric Association also took issue with the new NOA, and some AOA members publicly found fault and questioned the wisdom of the organization. During the annual AOA convention in Philadelphia, PA in 1969, the founders requested, and were granted, a meeting with the AOA’s board of trustees to clarify NOA’s mission. In Philadelphia, the AOA trustees insisted that there was no need for the NOA. Membership in the AOA was open to black optometrists, who had, already joined their ranks including Drs. Powell and Howlette. Dr. Powell prepared his response to the reality of this situation. While blacks could join the AOA, a prerequisite for membership was that candidates belong to their local AOA chapters. Black optometrists seeking membership in the AOA’s local affiliates were often met with standoffishness, and even outright resistance, particularly in the South. He also asserted that the balance of power within the AOA heavily favored internal committees. He pointed out that not a single one of the AOAs standing committees had a black appointee. His main reason, however, for starting the NOA was stated as this: At that time, the AOA rarely dealt with issues
that resonated among black optometrists. These issues included the recruitment of minority optometry students and the practice of optometry in minority communities. Drs. John Howlette & C. Clayton Powell.