On the brink of extinction, the Black hospital
St. Lukes (Martin,TX)
On this date we celebrate Black Hospitals. Black hospitals have existed in three broad types: segregated, black-controlled, and demographically determined.
Segregated Black hospitals included facilities created by Whites to serve African-Americans exclusively and they operated predominantly in the South. Black physicians, fraternal organizations, and churches founded Black- controlled facilities. Changes in population led to the development of demographically determined hospitals, as was the case with Harlem Hospital. This facility evolved into institutional status because of the rise in Black population surrounding the hospital.
Until the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, hospitals in the South and in the North either denied African-Americans admission, or accommodated them exclusively in segregated wards, usually in undesirable locations such as unheated attics and damp basements. The Georgia Infirmary, 1832, was the first segregated Black hospital. By the end of the nineteenth century, others had been founded, including Raleigh’s St. Agnes Hospital in 1896 and Atlanta’s MacVicar Infirmary in 1900. Some of their White founders expressed genuine if paternalistic desire and interest to supply health care to Black people.
White self-interest was at work too. The germ theory of disease widely accepted at the time acknowledged, “germs have no color line.” This theory required attention to the medical problems of African-Americans, especially those who were close to Whites in proximity. Soon Blacks founded hospitals to meet the specific needs of the African-American communities. Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first Black-controlled hospital in America, opened in 1891. Racism in Chicago had prevented Black nurses and doctors from practicing thus eliminating health care for any Black patients.
Other facilities opened up, including Tuskegee Institute and Nurse Training School in Alabama, 1892, Provident Hospital at Baltimore, 1894, and Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School at Philadelphia in 1895. These hubs of medical assistance for African-Americans represented in part the institutionalization of Booker T. Washington’s political ideology, advancing racial uplift by improving the health status of Black people and by contributing to the Black professional class.
By 1919, roughly 118 segregated and Black controlled hospitals existed, three-fourths of them in the South. Most of them were small and not full-service units, and were not prepared to survive sweeping changes in scientific medicine, hospital technology, and standardization that had begun to take place at the time. This was the most critical coniditon of survival of historically Black hospitals between 1920 and 1945. In the early 1920s, a group of physicians associated with the National Medical Association (NMA), a Black medical society, and the National Hospital Association (NHA), a Black hospital organization, launched a reform movement to ensure the survival of these hospitals and the maintenance of professions for Blacks. Their activities, with added financial help from White philanthropists, produced some improvements and preservations by World War II. However this “Negro Hospital Renaissance” showed that by 1923, out of 200 Black hospitals, only six provided internships and none of them had residency programs. In 1944 the number of hospitals increased to 124. The American Medical Association (AMA) approved nine of the facilities for internships and seven for residencies with the quality of some being suspect. The AMA admitted that their decision was based in part on the need to have some internship opportunities for Black doctors.
This attitude spotlights the then-accepted practice of treating Black people in separate but not equal facilities. During the Civil Rights Movement, the energies of the NMA, the NHA, and the NAACP focused on dismantling the “Negro medical ghetto” of which Black hospitals were a component. The protest between 1945 and 1965, poised toward integration in medicine, challenged the existence of the historically Black hospital. Legal action was a key weapon in desegregation of hospitals. With the Brown v Kansas Board of Education precedent, Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Hospital proved to be the pivotal case in 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further prohibited racial discrimination in any program receiving federal assistance.
Because of these changes in health care considerations, Black hospitalS now faced an ironic dilemma. They now competed with hospitals that had once discriminated against Black patients and staff. Since 1965, African-American physicians have gained access to the mainstream medical profession and Black hospitals have become less and less important to their careers; this has also affected their importance to the Black middle-class patient. Consequently, the vulnerability of the Black hospital has increased dramatically.
Historically Black hospitals have had a significant impact on the lives of African-Americans. They evolved not only out of critical need but as a symbol of pride and achievement within the Black community. They supplied medical care and professional opportunities for countless African-Americans. They have now become non-essential to the lives of most Americans and are on the verge of extinction.
The Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York