|Remembering Charlotte’s Good Samaritan Hospital|
|Published Monday, March 11, 2019|
When Charlotte’s Good Samaritan Hospital was built in 1891, no one wanted to go.
“Everybody went over there died,” said Thereasea Clark Elder, 92, a former public health nurse who worked at Good Samaritan for 14 years. “When I was young, I used to see people in the community caring for the sick; they didn’t go to the hospital.”
As North Carolina’s first private hospital for African-Americans, Good Samaritan served its patients through the Jim Crow era, but as Charlotte’s other institutions integrated, Good Sam’s fortunes declined. Even though the institution is gone, some of the problems of discrimination and disparity that Good Sam addressed persist in medicine today.
“There was nothing really like that in the state and very few places like it in the country at the time,” said Brandon Lunsford, archivist for Johnson C. Smith University.
Good Samaritan was built during a time of great change in American history. After the Civil War, people started seeing the value of hospitals, said Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett.
He described how a group of white women led by Jane Renwick Wilkes built St. Peter’s Hospital, North Carolina’s first civilian hospital in 1876, down the street from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church downtown.
“Pretty remarkably, she and [others] say, ‘You know, just having a hospital for white people, which is what St. Peter’s was, is not enough.’ We need to have hospital option for all of our citizens,” Hanchett recounted.
The result of Wilkes’ efforts, Good Samaritan, was one of the first private hospitals in the country for African-Americans. Saint Agnes Hospital, built on the campus of St. Augustine’s University, followed in 1896 and the Duke family financed the building of Lincoln Hospital in Durham in 1901.
“The South was really moving closer toward setting up separate facilities for everything, segregation in education, health care [and] so forth,” said historian Willie J. Griffin of the Levine Museum of the New South. “[Good Sam] was part of a larger black hospital movement that was sweeping across the South in the 1880s.”
But by the time Elder got a job as a Good Samaritan nurse in 1948, people were starting to pay attention to the disparities in health outcomes for blacks. For instance, Elder talked about addressing the high rate of prostate cancer in the community, which at the time was thought to be related to diet.
“I was going around talking to all of our churches in the community about the diet and what they were supposed to be eating,” Elder said. “They’d say, ‘That man, he won’t eat them greens unless he got that fatback,’ and I would tell them, ‘You killin’ him.’ [..] That was the only way I could get through to them.”
During her 14 years at Good Samaritan, the nurses had no orderlies or other staff because of persistent underfunding. “You had to do everything at Good Sam,” Elder recalled. “If a patient died, we [nurses] had to do all of that care […] Sometimes I had to go to the laundry room to wash the linen, then we had to wash the walls and whatever. We had to do all the cleaning; we were mopping, washing bedpans and then we had to bathe the patients.”
Shutting down Good Samaritan became a goal for leaders in the African-American community, Hanchett said. “Having everyone use the same facilities, having every doctor have the same access to all of the diagnostic and cure tools is a really good thing.”
In 1961, the hospital was sold to the city for $1 and became Charlotte Community Hospital, an integrated hospital associated with Charlotte Memorial Hospital. After she finished her public health certificate and left the hospital in 1962, Elder joined the Mecklenburg County Health Department as one of its first African-American public health nurses.
“When I went to work at the health department, we could not go in white schools,” Elder said. “We could not go in white homes. We could not work in white clinics. We couldn’t do nothing in the white communities. Nothing.”
After the schools integrated in 1970, the health department was under the threat of losing federal funding if it didn’t integrate, Elder said. Health department managers assigned Elder to “Klan territory,” where residents removed their house numbers so she couldn’t find them, she said.
“They didn’t want integration either,” Elder said. “That’s why they put me there; they thought I couldn’t take it.”
Her manager at the health department told her to visit the “beer pub” to find out where her patients lived, Elder said. “[A man in the pub] said ‘That’s a white family. Why the hell is a n- – – like you looking for a white family?’ I said ‘They sick, and they need help, and I’m the nurse to give them that help.’”
After finding that first patient’s house, Elder had to walk under a Confederate flag hanging from the ceiling to get to the patient, who was armed with a gun and knife while lying in bed, Elder said. “[The patient] said ‘If you hurt me, Imma shoot you,’” Elder said.
But Elder got the last word. “After I went there a couple of times, she called the health department and told them ‘Don’t send no more of them damn white nurses; if you got any more black ones, send ‘em.’”
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