Life and death of Mississippi’s four Black-owned hospitals

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Taborian Hospital opened in 1942, serving blacks from all over the Delta. It is now closed.

After the Reconstruction era and up through the end of World War II and beyond (1885-1950), hospitals in Mississippi paid little heed or service to the medical needs of the state’s Black majority. With only a few exceptions, seriously ill Black patients were usually shunted off to an unkempt and thoroughly segregated “charity” hospital, a one- or two-room area at the back entrance of the hospital that served as the “Colored” ward. 

During most of that era, a few Black doctors in the state were able to set up their own office practices, but they were never allowed to apply their skills in the white-owned hospitals of the state.

Former Meharry Medical School CEO, Dr. Wayne J. Riley, referred to the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s as the time when the American Medical Association wrecked the careers of young Black doctors throughout the country by not allowing them to serve their patients in hospitals. 

SOCIAL DARWINISM

“Black doctors were routinely denied medical staff privileges at hospitals because they weren’t AMA members,” Riley said in a 2008 interview. “But they couldn’t become AMA members because they were African-American.”

The late Dr. Frank McCune, a Black Jackson surgeon and owner of his own clinic, said the prevailing view of Black health in Mississippi was framed by the so-called Social Darwinists, out-and-out racists who advocated the survival of the fittest and believed that Black Mississippians were unfit for survival.

The Social Darwinists predicted that the Black race was destined for extinction in the early 1920s, McCune frequently pointed out in his weekly broadcasts on WMPR 90.1 FM radio before his death in 1914. Based on their philosophy, he said, professional medical treatment for Black people was a waste of time and money.

Frederick L. Hoffman, the vice-president and chief statistician at the Prudential Life Insurance Company in the 1890s, claimed that the entire Black race was doomed to extinction, solely due to its racial traits and character.

“The vitality of the negro (sic) may well be considered the most important phase of the so-called race problem,” Hoffman wrote in his book Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro published in 1896. “For it is a fact which can and will be demonstrated by indisputable evidence, that of all races for which statistics are obtainable, and which enter at all into the consideration of economic problems as factors, the negro shows the least power of resistance in the struggle for life,” he added. 

“In the struggle for race supremacy the Black race is not holding its own; and this fact once recognized, all danger from a possible numerical supremacy of the race vanishes. Its extreme liability to consumption (tuberculosis) alone would suffice to seal its fate as a race,” Hoffman said.

“Thus far, no effectual remedy has been suggested which would even slightly improve the present condition, a condition which, unchecked, must lead eventually to extermination, at a rate far more rapid than the recent census returns would indicate.”

McCune accused the American Medical Association of being responsible for promoting such biased notions of Black inferiority under the guise of scientific authority from the year of its founding in 1847 until 2008, the year of its purported “apology” in the July 16, 2008 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“The American Medical Association today is concerned with correcting inequalities,” McCune said in a July 2008 interview with the Jackson Advocate. “Following up on its apology for a history of racist practices against black doctors, the AMA should set up a billion-dollar trust fund to correct the inequities that resulted from that policy that was officially put in place in 1847 at the founding of the AMA.”

Yazoo Sons and Daughters Afro-American Hospital was opened in 1928, funded through the private resources of the Black community fraternal service organization led by Thomas J. Huddleston Sr., a prosperous Black entrepreneur and advocate of Booker T. Washington’s self-help philosophy. Organized in 1924, it had 35,000 members by the 1930s. Huddleston was the grandfather of former U. S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. (Photo courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF YAZOO CITY

To counter the neglect of Black patients who were left without even the minimum of health care, the Black fraternal orders that had begun to flourish during the Reconstruction Era initiated a campaign of self-help for medical care and health concerns. Shortly after World War I, groups like the Afro-American Sons and Daughters and the Knights and Daughters of Tabor set their minds and hearts to filling the growing need. 

In 1924, Thomas J. Huddleston, a member of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal benefits society that provided life insurance for its members, established the Afro-American Sons and Daughters of Yazoo City, and laid out plans for the construction of a hospital to accommodate the health and medical needs of the area’s Black community. Membership cost $1.50 a year, and Huddleston was able to sign up more than 35,000 members. With this pool of capital, he was able to secure a bank loan to cover the costs of construction. The Afro-American Sons and Daughters Hospital of Yazoo City opened its doors in 1928. 

The hospital had a long life and finally closed in 1966. The building structure remains standing but has suffered the consequences of age and exposure to the elements since closing.  Nevertheless, the Afro-American Sons and Daughters Foundation began a fundraising campaign in 2009 to restore the facility for use as a Head Start center, a Black History museum, and a community events center.

DEATH OF BESSIE SMITH

Early Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith died as the result of an auto accident on Highway 61 ten miles north of Clarksdale on September 26, 1937. The most widespread account of her death says that she died as a result of bleeding to death because the white hospital in Clarksdale would not allow her to be brought there for treatment. The prevailing myth also attributes the founding of the Black hospital at Mound Bayou in 1942 to the treatment, or lack of it, that Bessie Smith had been denied at the local white hospital.

That story has been discredited and proven untrue by a number of reliable sources, including eyewitness accounts and exhaustive research by historians and Bessie Smith biographers who have sought to correct the record since the time of her death.

George “Rat” Ratliff, the late owner of the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, though born in 1943, learned the true story of Bessie Smith’s death from his mother and his older neighbors, some of whom were eyewitnesses to the death.

G.T THOMAS HOSPITAL

The hospital Ratliff named was the G. T. Thomas Hospital of Clarksdale, perhaps the first structure owned by African Americans in Mississippi to be designated as a hospital.  

Writer Steve Minor writes on the Flickr website that the G. T. Thomas Hospital was an 8-room house that had been converted into a hospital care facility circa 1931. Smith was transported there after a number of mishaps. She later died there after having her arm amputated. 

“White surgeon Dr. Hugh Smith and his fishing buddy, Henry Broughton, soon came upon the wreck,” Minor writes. ‘Dr. Smith attended Bessie; Broughton set out to call for an ambulance. The patient went into shock. Dr. Smith decided to drive her to Clarksdale himself. Before he could move the unconscious singer to his parked vehicle, a car crashed into it. The driver and passenger were injured. An ambulance and a hearse finally arrived, almost simultaneously, one responding to Broughton’s call, the other to the truck driver’s.”

“African American hearse driver Willie George Miller rushed Bessie Smith to (Black) G. T. Thomas Hospital where her arm was amputated,” Minor said. “She died, hours later, at 11:30 AM.”

In 1943, Minor says, the hospital building was rented to Mrs. Z.L. Ratliff for use as a hotel.

“Z. L. ‘Momma’ (Ratliff) Hill…converted the G.T. Thomas Hospital into the legendary Riverside Hotel,” he says. The hotel became the home away from home for many traveling Black performers such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Duke Ellington, and Ike Turner, among others.

Riverside Hotel is still standing, although it closed once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The current owners, the granddaughters of Mrs. Ratliff, have launched a nationwide fundraising effort to restore the historic hotel.

Left: Taborian Hospital of Mound Bayou; Right: Because inpatient care was nonexistent for most African Americans in Mississippi, several Black fraternal organizations built and staffed their own hospitals. One of these, the Taborian Hospital, was established in the all Black town of Mound Bayou in 1942. Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard, MD, arrived as Chief Surgeon of the Taborian Hospital in 1947. In 2013, the Delta town received a $2.9 million grant from the Department of Agriculture to renovate and establish the Taborian Urgent Care Center. Since opening in 2016, the facility offers residents extended hours, walk-in access for acute illness, and injuries as well as physical and occupational therapy. Congressman Bennie G. Thompson represents Mound Bayou which is located in the 2nd congressional district. He is pictured (third from right) with organizers at the ground breaking dedication ceremony July 2013.

TABORIAN HOSPITAL

The most famous of the Black-owned hospitals was established in 1938 in the town of Mound Bayou by the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a fairly large fraternal group that once listed a nationwide membership of over 100,000 at its peak.

The founding father of the Taborian Hospital, Perry M. Smith, was strongly influenced by the example of the Afro-American Sons and Daughters Hospital of Yazoo City and was already planning his hospital years before Bessie Smith would die on the highway north of Clarksdale in 1937.

P. M. Smith was the Grand Mentor of the Taborians and tried to interest his members in the construction of the hospital as early as 1929.  University of Alabama historian David Beito tells the story of how Smith felt demeaned and insulted by the staff of a white-owned hospital a few years before.

“During the 1920s,” Beito writes, “he had taken one of his children to a white hospital, entering through the back door. He had waited in vain for a doctor, and eventually, he left. He carried the patient to the Afro-American Sons and Daughters Hospital in Yazoo City, Mississippi. There they entered through the front door and were treated with courtesy and respect. That day he decided to organize Tabor in Mound Bayou.”

Beito describes the hospital as a truly modern facility, comparable to the better hospitals serving the nation. The construction bill was over $100,000. The facility included two large operating rooms, an X-ray room, a sterilizer, an incubator, electro-cardiography, blood bank, and laboratory.

FRIENDSHIP CLINIC OPENS

When the Taborian Hospital opened in 1942, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, one of the great civil rights crusaders to emerge from that era, came on board as the chief surgeon and medical director of the hospital. 

He established a number of business enterprises that added to the Delta economy. His Mutual Life Insurance Company brought Medgar Evers to Mound Bayou as a sales agent at first, and then as company manager. 

In 1947, Howard had a dispute with P. M. Smith and his supporters over the administration of the Taborian Hospital.  Instead of moving away from Mound Bayou, Howard and his supporters opened a second hospital there – the United Order of Friendship Clinic – directly across the street from the Taborian Hospital.

Howard’s Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) was able to summon as many as 20,000 participants to his semi-annual conferences on civil rights and the racial situation in Mississippi to work on issues like Brown v. Board of Education, the Emmett Till murder, and the Black economic condition.

Howard’s Friendship Clinic continued operations in Mound Bayou well beyond his departure for Chicago in 1956. Both the Taborian Hospital and the Friendship Clinic continued to service the medical needs of the Delta area despite a constant decline in their revenue and staff resources. By 1966, the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity, a.k.a. the War on Poverty, offered to buy the combined facilities of the Taborian Hospital and the Friendship Clinic and to rename the operation the Mound Bayou Community Hospital. 

FINAL CLOSURE

By 1974, the direction of the community hospital was no longer in the hands of people with roots in Mound Bayou. Meharry Medical College suspended the rotation of its students and faculty there, which had been a vital part of the system that had kept Mound Bayou at the forefront of medical practices in Mississippi for over two decades, according to Beito.

For more than two decades, Beito observed, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor and the United Order of Friendship provided low-cost health care to thousands of people in one of the poorest areas of the United States.

“Both societies accomplished this feat without aid from the federal or state governments. Nothing compared to this system exists today,” he said.

The federally-funded and externally-controlled Mound Bayou Community Hospital closed for the last time in 1983. 

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Life and death of Mississippi’s four Black-owned hospitals

By Earnest McBride
February 25, 2022