Nurse filmmaker chronicles the history of all-African-American hospital
The legendary Ida B. Northcross, formerly chief of surgical nursing services at Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored, appears in the film “A Jewel in History: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored.”
The story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored captivated Mukulla Godwin, MS, RN, about a year after the facility was gone. She heard about the St. Louis hospital in 1980 from a fellow nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. The nurse, Paula Rogers, MSN, RN, had received her training at the Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing and couldn’t believe that her beloved school had closed.
Rogers enthralled Godwin with stories of Ida B. Northcross, MSN, RN, chief of surgical nursing services, who ran her department with such authority that even the physicians obeyed her orders. Stories of African-American nursing students who graduated knowing they had received the country’s top nursing education and were confident they could work anywhere. Stories of a hospital staff who worked together, ate together and lived together as part of a larger, thriving African-American community.
Godwin’s sense of history, especially African-American history, and her training as a nurse told her that the Homer G. Phillips story was one that people had to hear. Since she first heard the accounts, Godwin, a staff psychiatric nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, has spent thousands of dollars––many of them raised from her own salary––and thousands of hours to tell that story.
Her documentary, “A Jewel in History: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored,” follows the history of the 600-plus-bed hospital for African Americans.
The hospital was named after lawyer Homer G. Phillips, who fought for nonsegregated city housing and job equality. The hospital’s dedication in 1937 was accompanied by a parade. It closed in 1979 amid protests and demonstrations.
The 53-minute film, directed by Chike Nwoffiah, features interviews with physicians and nurses who worked in the hospital, as well as African-American historians who talk about how the rise and fall of Homer G. Phillips reflected the plight of African-American hospitals around the country.
Godwin and Nwoffiah finished the first cut of their film in late 1999. It had its premiere in St. Louis and has had limited showings in universities, churches and other community settings around the nation. Godwin and Nwoffiah plan to enter the documentary in the Pan African film festival and other such showings, and to have it viewed by various nursing organizations. Because conventional hospitals either could not admit African Americans under segregation laws or failed to properly care for African-American patients, many communities began to create all-African-American hospitals in the early 1900s, with a mix of public and private funds. African-American historians have documented more than 500 of these “colored” hospitals, Godwin said.
Originally run by Caucasians and eventually turned over to African Americans, these hospitals became training grounds for African-American administrators, teachers and students, who often had nowhere else to obtain clinical practice.
Some, like Homer G. Phillips, operated their own nursing schools so they didn’t have to import nurses from African-American schools and hospitals in other states.
Near the beginning of the film, a doctor at Homer G. Phillips tells of visiting his mother as she lay dying in the dank and smelly basement of a conventional hospital. The film shows the christening of a handsome six-story brick building fronted by a neatly trimmed courtyard.
Rise to prominence
The documentary chronicles the hospital’s rise to prominence during the years of segregation and the pride of the physicians and nurses who worked there.
“We knew we had to be better than the whites,” one doctor in the film said.
Such attitudes prevailed among nurses and nursing students in African-American hospitals, said Agnes Morton, MS, MPH, RN, a retired public health nurse and educator who now works with the African American Coalition for Health Improvement and Empowerment in San Francisco. Morton attended an all-African-American nursing school at Florida A&M University and worked briefly at the all-African-American hospital there.
“In the hospital, you were working with your own people,” she said. “Your instructors were black and they demanded excellence. We got nurturing and support from them. I felt like my self-esteem was good and that’s what carried me.”
“Many nurses from Homer G. Phillips still meet regularly,” said Geraldine Phelps, MSN, RN.
The group holds banquets and awards scholarships. Phelps was a student, instructor and associate director of education at the Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing from 1948 to 1968, when the school graduated its last class.
“It was important here in St. Louis because there was only one other black school of nursing and that was a Catholic school,” she said. “There was no acceptance of black students in the white schools.”
But Phelps couldn’t recall any African-American student who wanted to go somewhere else. “We were in an all-black community,” she said. “It was like really one big family.”
Even after nursing schools began opening their doors to African Americans in the late 1950s and 1960s, Homer G. Phillips’ reputation for excellence still attracted students to the nursing school.
“We had young people just dying to get into our programs,” Phelps said. “Our nurses did have a reputation for being very good bedside nurses.”
After integration, which began in the 1950s, physicians, nurses, patients and resources began to flow out of many African-American hospitals and they began to close.
The city of St. Louis decided it couldn’t support both its public hospitals and opted to close Homer G. Phillips. The hospital’s supporters barricaded themselves in the building to protest its closure and fought unsuccessfully for seven years to reopen it.
Emotions run high
Emotions about the hospital still ran strong at the film’s premiere, said Florence Stroud, MSN, MPH, RN, a former director of public health for the city of Berkeley, Calif., and former senior deputy director of public health in San Francisco.
“I got a real sense of how much that institution meant to them and how angry they were about it being closed,” said Stroud, who narrated some of the film and encouraged Godwin on the project. “For me, the film has certainly increased my own energy in dealing with these health disparities that plague African Americans.”
In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Zenobia Thompson, RN, a former nurse at Homer G. Phillips, walks through the empty hospital building, now filled with rubble, and recalls how surgeons, interns and nurses once bustled through its halls, saving lives.
“It’s sad to think back over the years that this hospital was a pillar of the community, the heart of the community, and look at this community now,” she says, peering through a window at a row of rundown houses. “Today we have an empty shell of a building that holds the memories and the history of so many marvelous, wonderful people.”
Thanks to Godwin, a nurse with a sense of history and mission, those people are not forgotten.