Wilmington and this region have a proud healthcare tradition in North Carolina, dating back to a time when it was the economic and cultural center of the state. This history includes the state’s first licensed doctor. The birthplace of public health in North Carolina. One of the first nursing schools, partnered with a hospital that opened as a showcase for health in the state.
But Wilmington’s progress did not always reach people of color. Throughout our history, the obstacles of segregation and discrimination, sometimes to a historic degree, have created barriers for African-Americans providing care and seeking it.
So as we celebrate Black History Month, we want to acknowledge those who overcame barriers and took the cause of civil rights to health care. These pioneers created opportunities that have established New Hanover Regional Medical Center as the leader it is today and led us to a new mission serving the community a new way.
Iniquities after the War
Shortly after the Civil War, the disparity in care among races was publicly and painfully apparent. While doctors caring for Union solders found, Dr. Edwin Anderson wrote that “nothing was wanting, not even luxuries.” Conversely, Dr. Thomas Fanning Wood, who would become the founder of public health in the state, wrote about conditions while caring for freed slaves: “Vermin were disgustingly numerous,” he wrote. “The maggots were so thick in the soup that is was directed to be thrown away to prevent the half-starved convalescents from devouring it.”
Still, in the decades that followed, the city would have an all-black elected City Council and black police chief. The state first African-American doctor, James Francis Shober, was licensed in 1878. Wilmington was the state’s largest city and cultural center.
It wouldn’t last. The turning point took place in 1898, when armed whites ran thousands of blacks out of town, swaying an election that overthrew the city government and installed whites. Many blacks died and many more never returned. Wilmington would soon lose its status as the state’s cultural center.
Four years later, James Walker Memorial Hospital opened, a showplace in comparison to the humble hospitals of the time. The new facility included a “colored annex,” and no one suggested the care was equal. Black physicians were not allowed to practice.
Leaders in the black physician community objected. Dr. Frank Avent wrote about delivering babies on kitchen tables. A group came together in 1921 to open Community Hospital on North 7th St. with Dr. Foster F. Burnett the primary driving force and first hospital superintendent.
Community Hospital also opened a nursing school, and its superintendent, Salome Taylor (pictured), two years later became the hospital leader as well, making her a pioneer among area women. Community Hospital would open a larger site on S. 11th St. in 1939. Altogether, Community Hospital served the African-American community for 46 years, providing quality and dignified care that was not available elsewhere.
During these years, health care was separate but not equal. Key physician leaders such as Dr. Daniel C. Roane, Dr. Leroy Upperman and Dr. Hubert Eaton (pictured) continued to challenge the system and in 1956, Drs. Eaton and Roane, along with Dr. Samuel James Gray, sued James Walker Memorial Hospital, charging that hospitals that received federal funding could not deny staff privileges to blacks.
The case, bolstered by legal counsel from Thurgood Marshall, reached the U.S. Supreme Court and was eventually decided in favor of the African-American challengers.
Dr. Gray (pictured) became the first black doctor with privileges at James Walker before his death in 1965.
By this time, James Walker had deteriorated and was in need of replacement. Seymour Alper, owner of Queensboro Steel, led the effort for a bond referendum to build a new hospital. He understood early on that he would need African-American support, and approached Dr. Eaton, now an established civil rights leader.
At first, Dr. Eaton and the community suspected the new hospital would be a larger integrated one – and opposed it. However, Alper and his supporters continued to reach out. On the night of the vote, the referendum trailed with one precinct left to report - a downtown, mostly African-American precinct.
The trust had been built. The precinct overwhelmingly supported the new hospital, and the referendum passed by 272 votes.
When New Hanover Memorial Hospital opened on June 14, 1967, a black and white hospital closed and an integrated hospital opened. Think about this for a moment. In the late 1960s in the Deep South, a hospital open to all regardless of race, creed, nationality or religion opened without riot, protest, demonstration or bloodshed. It stands to this day as this city’s and region’s shining moment in civil rights.
A promising future
Today, New Hanover Regional Medical Center features doctors such as Dr. Karenne Fru and Dr. John Belle, whose specialized skills are Leading Our Community to Outstanding Health. And NHRMC is fulfilling that mission by reaching into the community to help those who might not otherwise seek our care. Joe Conway, our new Health Equity Director, and Kevin Briggs, our Laboratory Director, are leading food drives, making connections with our schools and civic partners, and driving initiatives such as bringing health screenings to barber shops.
Our story on race relations in Wilmington is typical for the South, and historically calamitous in terms of the 1898 riots. But there is much to be proud of. Brave black leaders built a healthcare and nursing education system that proudly and ably cared for its people for 48 years.
Blacks who had every reason to be suspicious of promises of progress instead put their trust in people who were willing to help, and ended up making the difference in the birth of what is today New Hanover Regional Medical Center, the leading health provider for this region of the state. And African-Americans in leadership roles today are paying it forward as the health system carries out its mission of taking health care directly into the community.
For all these contributions and for many more to come, New Hanover Regional Medical Center would like to recognize these leaders during Black History Month and say thank you.