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Nurses remember Homer G. Phillips Hospital as ‘a pillar of the Black community’

Nursing students take part in a science class at Homer G. Phillips, while instructors demonstrate with a skeleton and anatomic models. Photo ca. 1960.
Missouri Historical Society
Nursing students take part in a science class at Homer G. Phillips, while instructors demonstrate with a skeleton and anatomic models. Photo ca. 1960.

Between 1937 and 1979, Homer G. Phillips Hospital in the Ville neighborhood of St. Louis was internationally known as a state-of-the-art institution serving the region’s Black residents. It also offered training opportunities for Black medical graduates at a time when few academic institutions in the U.S. did so.

“It was a pillar of the Black community, and we were very proud,” Rowena Jones told St. Louis on the Air. Jones said the hospital was known for its excellent surgeons, trauma department and maternity ward. “It was an outstanding institution. … Black women came from all over the country to enter into Homer G. Phillips’ school of nursing.”

A new book from University of Missouri Press, "Climbing the Ladder, Chasing the Dream," highlights the history of the hospital.

See also: St. Louis leaders join residents to oppose name of new Homer G. Phillips Hospital

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske spoke with author and historian Candace O'Connor, as well as two nurses who trained and worked at the facility: Martha Jackson Nelson and Georgia Rhone Anderson.

Anderson worked at Homer G. Phillips Hospital from 1955 until it closed in 1979. She said she enjoyed her entire nursing career, and particularly valued working in the Ville.

“We were made to believe that we mattered, that our thoughts and ideas were worth listening to,” she said. “It was just like a big family. We treated everybody with respect, including the patients.”

When the hospital closed, Anderson said it devastated the neighborhood, which she remembers as a once-thriving place.

“Phillips was a historical event, and I think the community has suffered tremendously because of its loss,” Anderson said. “The Ville — at one time, a long time [ago] — had everything that the community needed. … There were grocery stores, gas stations, churches, schools, a college [and] a nursing home.

“There was a special pride that you had in where you lived,” she added. “And right now, the community looks like a storm came through it. A lot of houses are empty. It's just a different place.”

Nurses remember Homer G. Phillips Hospital as ‘a pillar of the Black community’

O'Connor said the answer to why the facility closed depends on whom you ask.

“It was a combination of genuine money problems, but also, some people argue that it was a product of racism. The city, in the ‘70s, was experiencing much population loss. The folks were moving to the suburbs, the tax base was eroding. There wasn't as much tax money to spend on public hospitals,” she said.

“Eventually, Mayor [James] Conway closed Homer G. [Phillips Hospital] in August of 1979. Without any warning, they sent in police officers, buses full of folks who were keeping order, they brought in dogs, there were helicopters. The hospital closed that day, and it is very controversial. There were lots of people from the staff and from the neighborhood who were protesting and, and continue to protest after that day as well,” O’Connor said.

Nelson was not on staff when the hospital closed, but she stayed in touch with many of the nurses still working there. “It was a very horrible day for the staff,” she said.

The nurses of Homer G. Phillips maintain an active alumni association.

Today, several former nurses are voicing their opposition to developer Paul McKee’s plans to name a three-bed hospital Homer G. Phillips. That facility is set to open next spring in north St. Louis.

“Homer G. Phillips Hospital was a 600-bed, internationally known hospital, and then he’s going to come up and name a three-bed hut after the name, saying it’s a hospital?” Anderson said. “I have no problem with the building and its three beds, but name it something else.”

Yesterday, Mayor Tishaura Jones, Missouri Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins and St. Louis Alderwoman Dwinderlin Evans condemned the use of the name during a public meeting at City Hall, echoing the sentiment of community members and leaders who say McKee's effort tarnishes what pioneering attorney Homer G. Phillips stood for.

“[Homer G. Phillips] lobbied to have [a hospital] put in the Ville neighborhood, which was a thriving Black neighborhood,” O’Connor said. “There's still a great deal of pride in the fact that, at a time when there was segregation in the larger community, this hospital, that was run by African American people, was thriving and was just a wonderful place to train and to be treated.”

She added: “I have not talked to a single person who thinks it's a good idea to name this three-bed facility ‘Homer G Phillips Hospital.’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.