For almost a century, it was widely known that hospitals in Omaha were for whites only. Defacto segregation made doctors apply for birth certificates at hospitals where African American mothers weren’t allowed to birth their babies, while African American doctors weren’t allowed to work in most hospitals until the 1920s, and even then they could only treat Black patients. Jim Crow made sure Omaha’s Black community stayed unhealthy through circumstance, design, insinuation and outcomes.
African American doctors struggled to change this for decades, and in 1948 one pushed through by starting his own hospital.
Introducing Dr. McMillan
Dr. Aaron M. McMillan (1895-1980) became a wildly popular figure throughout his life in North Omaha. After practicing medicine and serving in the Nebraska Legislature for a term, Dr. McMillan and his wife, Willena left Omaha in 1929 to become medical missionaries overseas. Starting in 1929, they spent 17 years building a hospital and serving more than 80,000 patients in Angola.
Aaron and Willena moved back to Omaha In 1948 and immediately opened the People’s Hospital.
Building a Local Hospital
Three years earlier in 1945, several African American doctors announced plans for Provident Hospital, a brand-new facility to be built on North 30th Street to serve North Omaha’s African American population. However, it never moved from drawings to reality. Dr. McMillan fulfilled the vision on his own.
Given his missionary work, it should come as no surprise that Dr. McMillan saw the medical needs of Omaha’s Black community immediately when he came home from Angola. Determined to provide services on a free or sliding-fee scale basis, Aaron and his wife opened the People’s Hospital to meet North Omaha’s unmet healthcare needs in 1948.
In 1913, T. J. Moriarty was granted a permit to build a two-story brick store and apartment building at 1844 North 20th Street in the Near North Side neighborhood, near the corner of North 20th and Grace Streets. That was the building where Dr. McMillan opened the People’s Hospital.
In the middle of 1948, the Black community began fundraising in earnest for the People’s Hospital. Rev. John Adams, Sr., Dr. A. L. Hawkins, Rev. Daniel Thomas, Rev. F. C. Williams and several other supporters joined at several events and in cajoling their friends to give money to the effort. More than $15,000 in donations were raised to open the facility. With numerous events promoted through the Omaha Star newspaper, the People’s Hospital was dependent on a cycle of philanthropy throughout its life. That made sense for a fee-free hospital. Seeking underwriting for nurse education, the paper said that “any local girl who decides upon a nursing career must in most cases go out of state for her training.” In Omaha’s case, “local” meant African American because there were several nurse training facilities for white women.
Highlighting the facility’s open house on September 25, 1948, the Omaha Guide reported that the hospital would have “the latest equipment and be staffed by some of the best physicians in Omaha and will have an efficient nursing staff.” According to a 1948 interview, Dr. McMillan said the hospital provided “services for obstetrical work, surgery and general medicine.”
The hospital had two floors. On the first was a greeting room, kitchen, scrub room, delivery room, and operating room, each with “modern medical equipment.” The second floor had two wards with 30 beds, with rooms painted “in a cheerful cream and green.”
Several congregations raised money for the hospital, including Mt. Moriah Baptist, Zion Baptist, and St. John’s AME. “We are grateful to the people, both white and colored, who have expressed their deep interest in the hospital.”
After operating for five years, the City of Omaha gave Dr. McMillan a notice that they were going to shut down the hospital in January 1953. Apparently the building didn’t meet city code demands, and late that year it was shuttered forever. Dr. McMillan, who owned the building, tore the structure down and replaced it with a new office building he used for the next 20 years for his private practice.
Today, there is no historical marker designating the place where the People’s Hospital once stood. Instead, there are suburb tract-style homes built on the spot with no historical features showing. Maybe that will change someday.