OT: Homer G. Phillips Hospital--St. Louis, MO

“Climbing the Ladder, Chasing the Dream: The History of Homer G. Phillips Hospital,” by Candace O’Connor, Univ of Missouri Press, Columbia, MO, 2021. This 314-page hardback tells the story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, in St. Louis, MO, a black hospital in the heart of the Ville, a thriving African American community. The hospital was well known for the medical training it provided to black physicians and nurses and for the excellence of its emergency care–especially in the era of Jim Crow and strict segregation laws.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital opened in 1937. It replaced “ramshackled” City Hospital No. 2 which served the black community with inadequate facilities. HGPH was considered the best trauma hospital in St. Louis. It had the latest equipment and at last African Americans were promised equal care.

For decades restrictive covenants forced blacks in St. Louis to live in the Ville. From 1930 to the 1950s, its dense population included more than a third of the city’s Black leadership. That included schoolteachers, janitors, doctors, meat packers, lawyers, railroad men, hospital staff, and domestics. Tidy, modest homes were around the corner from two-room cold water flats with outhouses in back. The Ville was a self contained community with everything in walking distance. It included Sumner High School the first all Black high school west of the Mississippi, which opened in the Ville in 1908. Graduates included Arthur Ashe, Dick Gregory, and Tina Turner.

In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelly vs Kraemer that restrictive covenants were not enforceable. That enabled blacks to move to better communities. Black professionals moved leaving the poor behind in the Ville. It also began an era of white flight as blacks moved into previously white neighborhoods. Much of St. Louis remained segregated including hospitals. In 1954, Jewish Hospital was the first to accept black patients on the wards. Barnes Hospital closed its segregated wards only in 1964 after passage of the Civil Rights Act, but patients recall being shunted to basement wards for care.

The movement to build black hospitals slowly gained acceptance. Provident Hospital in Chicago (1891) and Tuskegee Hospital in Alabama (1892) were among the first. In 1923, the US had 202 Black hospitals but only six offered internships and none offered residency training. Homer G. Phillips had the most internships and residency spots of any black hospital in the US. In 1939 there were 52 physicians on the staff; the hospital trained 50% of black medical school graduates in the US. White physicians from area programs–St. Louis University, Washington Univ, Jewish, Barnes, and St. Louis Children’s came to HGPH to lecture, teach, engage in research, and head various services.

Homer G. Phillips came from the need recognized in the 1920s. Attorney Homer G. Phillips was an outspoken advocate. A bond issue passed in 1923 allocated $1MM for construction of the hospital. Phillips was murdered in 1931 before the hospital opened. Political wrangling delayed construction. Civil rights legislation resulted in less segregation. Gradually training programs were merged and black programs were closed. Homer G. Phillips Hospital closed in 1979.

A chapter describes Homer G. Phillips. He was born in 1878 in Smithton, near Sedalia, MO as Wesley Phillips. He changed his name to Homer G to avoid confusion with two other Wesley Phillips in Sedalia. He attended George R. Smith College, a historically black college, in Sedalia and then Howard University School of Law. He began his law practice in Sedalia in 1904 and moved to St. Louis in 1911.

In 1916, voters in St. Louis passed ordinances that prevented moving into a block that was wholly another race or more than 75% another race. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled those ordinances illegal in Buchanan v. Warley. Use of restrictive covenants soon followed. Phillips opposed the ordinances on behalf of NAACP. He worked for civil rights encouraging election of Black officials, demanding representation of Blacks in police and fire departments, and inducing department stores to hire black clerks. He was an advocate for a black hospital. His murder is thought to have resulted from a disputed inheritance, but his murderers were not convicted.

In 1911, medical care for African Americans was in three overcrowded segregated wards in City Hospital No. 1. The staff was all white, and care was poor. Due to the Great Migration from the South, the black population in St. Louis nearly doubled from 35,516 in 1880 to 69,854 in 1900. Meanwhile the total population grew from 575.238 to 772,897.

In 1919, City Hospital No 2 was created to serve Blacks in the defunct Barnes Medical College building (another Barnes not part of Barnes Hospital). It hired black nurses and provided a three year nurses training program for those with a high school diploma. The 200 bed hospital had only three black physicians. It had eleven Black trainees including two residents in surgery and internal medicine and 9 interns. The hospital was dingy, outmoded and over crowded. The overflow went to a private Black Hospital, People’s Hospital with 75 beds.

The city debated various aspects of what became HGPH for years. Condemnation of property began only in 1931. The cornerstone was laid December 10, 1933. Black workers were excluded from the construction. From the beginning the hospital was a success. It treated nearly 11,000 patients its first year.

Chapters describe those who worked at the hospital. Many were interviewed. Their stories are shared along with comments about prominent leaders, physicians, and nurses.

Redevelopment of Mill Creek Valley was a major event in St. Louis. The 465-acre tract housed 20,000 people mostly black and a host of Black institutions. Planning began in the 1940s.

The Great Migration continued to bring Southern blacks to the city. The minority population grew from 94,000 in 1930 to 232,000 in 1955. Meanwhile, the white population fell from 732,000 to 650,000, an 11% decline. Between 1950 amd 2000, St. Louis lost 10,000 persons per year.

Some adventures of nursing school are shared. The white nursing caps were soaked in blue Faultless starch and ironed (or flattened on a mirror and allowed to dry). They wore white hose and clunky “granny” shoes purchased at Famous-Barr. You could make white shoes shine. Hazing included eating “eyeballs”–really peeled grapes. Students touched a hot iron and were asked to hold it–substituting a cold iron. Worms–actually cooked spaghetti–was placed on them. Hems had to be exactly 18 in from the floor. After six months, students received a cap at a formal capping ceremony. That included reciting the Florence Nightingale pledge and receiving a Florence Nightingale lamp with a candle. House mothers monitored the students. Men were not allowed above first floor. Curfew was strictly enforced–10:15 on weekdays and 11 on weekends.

The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the ‘60s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was followed by the Medicare/Medicaid Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act. As minorities got political power, pressures to modernize increased. At Home G. Phillips School of Nursing, nurses began to wear pantsuits. As hospitals integrated, black hospitals began to close. In St. Louis, St. Mary’s Infirmary closed in 1966; People’s Hospital in 1967. Black hospitals traditionally treated the poor, the uninsured, and those on Medicaid. Disparities in care were still noted. In 1965, a study found St. Louis had the highest death rate among African American newborns of 10 US cities. The difference was attributed to lack of adequate prenatal care. The first study recommending consolidation of St. Louis hospitals and closing Homer G Phillips arrived in 1961. The discussion continued for years until HGPH closed in 1979.

Readers will learn the story of Homer G, Phillips Hospital. They will also learn something of life in the St. Louis African American community in the days of segregation. Index, bibliography, photos.