ST. LOUIS (AP) — While segregation still cast its ugly shadow over America, Homer G. Phillips Hospital provided world-class medical care to a predominantly African-American part of St. Louis and trained some of the best black doctors of the world. nurses
The 660-bed hospital closed 43 years ago, but the city’s black community still reveres the facility named after the man who led the fight to open a world-class hospital for black residents in segregated St. Louis. So a white developer’s decision to name a new three-bed facility Homer G. Phillips Memorial Hospital has faced a backlash that includes a lawsuit, protests and newspaper editorials decrying what some see as cultural appropriation.
“That smacks of racism to me,” said Zenobia Thompson, 78, who trained at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in the 1960s before becoming its head nurse. “We are laser focused and determined to let that name go down.”
Darryl Piggee, a black attorney who sits on the board of directors for the new hospital expected to open next spring, said it was his idea to name it after Phillips, to honor his legacy, not profit from it.
“I’m from here, okay? So the idea that it was an appropriation is not true,” Piggee said. “I think the board is pleased that we are putting out the name of someone that people should know about.”
The new hospital, which is located in a different section of northern St. Louis than the site of the old hospital, is part of developer Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration project. Funded in part with nearly $400 million in tax increase financing, NorthSide seeks to transform a blighted area north of downtown with new housing, commercial projects and job-creating industry.
The hospital is a small but necessary part of development. Health care is scarce in north St. Louis, where about three-quarters of residents are black and the median household income is 40% below the poverty line.
St. Louis’s leading black newspaper, the St. Louis American, noted in an editorial that it did not object to the new medical center “but to the insensitivity shown by the developer to community concern over its appropriation of the name of one of the the most sacred and esteemed institutions of the black community.”
In July, Thompson and other nurses who worked at the original Homer G. Phillips Hospital filed a lawsuit alleging trademark infringement. The suit seeks unspecified financial damages and a new name for the center.
Homer G. Phillips was a prominent black lawyer who led the fight a century ago for a new St. Louis hospital for black residents in what was then one of the most segregated cities in America.
Passage of a bond issue provided the funds, and the new hospital opened in 1937. Phillips did not live to see the hospital that would bear his name: he was shot and killed in 1931 in an attack that remains unsolved.
Dr. Will Ross, a physician and associate dean for diversity at the University of Washington School of Medicine and co-author of a book on the legacy of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, said it was the “health, social and economic anchor” from your neighborhood.
Walle Amusa, a longtime black activist, recalled how the neighborhood around the hospital prospered. Dozens of businesses served the nurses, doctors, staff and visitors. Well-maintained brick houses surrounded the hospital.
“It was like a family affair inside that hospital, and it was like a family community outside,” recalled Jobyna Foster, 86, a nurse for many years at the hospital.
Thompson agreed. She grew up in the neighborhood and remembered seeing the nurses walk proudly in their white uniforms.
“That’s when I decided to be a nurse,” she said.
Segregation created the need for the hospital, and many in the black community say racism spelled its demise.
The two city-run hospitals were broken up in the 1950s. For the next two decades, Homer G. Phillips remained open and continued to thrive, said Yvonne Jones, 75, who was a nurse there at the time.
Still, in the late 1970s, city leaders decided that two city-run hospitals were no longer needed and ordered Homer G. Phillips closed, allowing the one in the white St. Louis area to remain open. . Amusa was one of hundreds of people who formed a human blockade to stop the removal of patients and equipment from Homer G. Phillips, but it did not work and the hospital closed in 1979, six years before the other city-run hospital closed. .
Today, the massive brown brick building that housed Homer G. Phillips still stands and serves as senior housing. The area around him has seen difficult times. There are few businesses nearby, and many houses are vacant and dilapidated, with broken windows and sagging roofs. Crime is common and poverty permeates.
“When the hospital was closed it was like the death sentence for the community,” said Amusa.
Piggee said the new medical center and the NorthSide Regeneration project in general will help revitalize North St. Louis.
NorthSide Regeneration has had its stops and starts since its release a decade and a half ago. Some north St. Louis residents have complained that the hundreds of parcels of land purchased by the developer are a nuisance, with little sign of progress. McKee did not respond to messages seeking comment.
But a new gas station and grocery store have opened as part of the project. The most notable success was the federal government’s decision to build a $1.75 billion campus for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on nearly 100 acres (40 hectares) within the boundaries of NorthSide Regeneration, creating thousands of good-paying jobs. It is expected to open in 2025.
The new facility is located a couple of blocks from the NGA site. Hospital president Fred Mills sees it as a vital part of McKee’s plan for the area.
Mills, who spent decades leading larger hospitals, said Homer G. Phillips Memorial will offer 24-hour emergency room care with the capacity to treat up to 15 patients at a time. The 15,500-square-foot facility includes an MRI machine and amenities like ports that offer easy access to emergency dialysis and a room designed to ensure people with behavioral disorders are safe.
Developers have said plans eventually call for expansion that could include a medical school, housing, a hotel and office space.
“Our dream and goal is to have a bigger facility, but you have to start somewhere,” Mills said.
Jones, who is president of the Homer G. Phillips Nurses’ Alumni, agreed that the new facility is badly needed. She just wants it to be called something else.
“We want to protect the name and legacy of Homer G. Phillips by removing the current name from that building,” Jones said. “That’s all we want.”
Piggee said there are no plans to change the name.
“I understand your point of view, but we just don’t agree,” he said. “I hope we can move on.”
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