A History of Segregated Hospitals in Omaha

 

“It is almost impossible to get a Negro into a hospital even in the charity wards in Omaha… In the few cases where a Negro is admitted, the Negro physician must turn over the case to a staff [white] physician. The patient loses the advantage of being attended by the man who has followed his case from the beginning, and the doctor loses his fees.”

—Dr. D. W. Gooden, 1927

Omaha was de facto segregated for more than 75 years. Jim Crow affected employment, education, housing, religious institutions, and more throughout the city. It also meant that African Americans would routinely and frequently be denied healthcare throughout the city.

Starting in the 1890s, several attempts were made to start Black hospitals in Omaha.

Jim Crow in the Hospitals

Researching more than a century of reports from Omaha hospitals, I found regular stories that said almost all hospitals in Omaha would take a few Black patients annually, but none accepted all Black patients regularly. Those included North Omaha’s hospitals including Creighton University Saint Joseph’s (before the 30th St hospital), Immanuel, Methodist, Swedish Covenant on 24th, Presbyterian on Wirt, and Wise on 16th.

Similarly, Black doctors weren’t allowed to practice in white hospitals, and when they brought patients in they were forced to hand over their paying patient to white doctors who then collected the fees. Black nurses were not allowed to work in white hospitals either into the 1960s, and when they finally were it was only with Black patients. 

Perhaps the situation was spelled out best at a 1927 meeting of the Professional Mens’ Club in downtown Omaha. There, Dr. D. W. Gooden and attorney Harrison Pinkett, both African Americans, reported to their colleagues and the city’s business community that Omaha’s hospitals were poisoned by Jim Crow practices. Dr. Gooden said, “It is almost impossible to get a Negro into a hospital even in the charity wards in Omaha… In the few cases where a Negro is admitted, the Negro physician must turn over the case to a staff [white] physician. The patient loses the advantage of being attended by the man who has followed his case from the beginning, and the doctor loses his fees.”

The solution they proposed, similar to decades before and decades after, was to build a hospital in North Omaha where African Americans could get care without reservations, discrimination or hesitation. In other words, these African American physicians believed Omaha needed a segregated hospital.

Black Hospitals in Omaha

The hospitals started for African Americans in Omaha included the People’s Hospital (1948-1953), and Mercy Hospital (c1919-c1924). Although not hospitals, the Negro Women’s Christian Home (1915-1937) and the Charles Drew Health Center (1984-present) have been healthcare facilities that each served African Americans specifically, too.


The People’s Hospital

This is Dr. Aaron Manasses McMillan (1895-1980), a noted missionary doctor, Omaha politician and African American community leader.
This is Dr. Aaron Manasses McMillan (1895-1980), a noted missionary doctor, Omaha politician and African American community leader.

Located at North 20th and Grace Streets from 1948 to 1953, the People’s Hospital was the vision of one man determined to give back to the community he came from.

After serving as a Nebraska State Senator and spending a longtime as a doctor at a hospital in Angola, Dr. Aaron McMillan returned to Omaha to establish a hospital for African Americans. It was 1948, and his goal was to have a free hospital open to anyone in the community. Opening at North 20th and Grace, the People’s Hospital ran for five years.

Learn more from my article, A History of People’s Hospital in North Omaha.


Mercy Hospital

Mercy Hospital, 2401 Parker St., North Omaha, Nebraska
This is an aerial photo of the building at 24th and Parker that once held Mercy Hospital (c1919-c1924), and before that Frenzer Hall (1905-1918).

Perhaps the first Black hospital in Omaha was at 2401 Parker Street, and was called Mercy Hospital. Mercy Hospital was located on the northwest corner of North 24th and Parker Street in the former Frenzer Hall starting in 1919 for at least five years. According to a 1975 article in the Omaha Star, Dr. Roscoe C. Riddle was the chief physician and surgeon, along with two doctors and six nurses. Dr. Riddle was also associated with an address at 817 North 16th Street.


Negro Women’s Christian Home

Colored Old Folks Home workers, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is 1913 pic shows a group of women who worked at the Colored Old Folks Home.

The Negro Women’s Christian Home was originally opened in 1907 at 3029 Pinkney Street. Throughout the years, it was known by several names until it was permanently closed in 1961.

Originally located at 933 North 25th Avenue, the Negro Women’s Christian Home was also called the Negro Old Folks Home. It was replaced in 1920 by a large house at 2306 North 22nd Street. In the 1930s, the organization moved into 3029 Pinkney Street. In the early 1950s, it was renamed the Martha T. Smith Home for the Aged in honor of a founder.

Serving Omaha’s African American community for more than 50 years, this home provided medical services to its patients. It was unique for almost its entire duration. Learn more from my article, A History of the Negro Old Folks Home.

Planning Other Black Hospitals

Provident Hospital, N. 30th and Wirt, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a drawing of the once-proposed Provident Hospital, a segregated healthcare facility planned for N. 30th and Wirt Streets in North Omaha. It was never built.

There were several campaigns to raise money to build new segregated hospitals in Omaha. For instance, in 1914 a group of African American doctors planned to raise $20,000 to build a segregated hospital in the Near North SIde.

In March 1922, the Supreme Royal Circle of Friends of the World appropriated $100,000 for a Black-only hospital in Omaha. An African American fraternal organization, the organization provided insurance to African-Americans and was also dedicated to the moral, physical, social and economic welfare of its members. The leader of the organization announced,

“The hospital won’t cost Omaha people a nickel. The money is appropriated. We have decided to build here. Friday night we have a mass meeting at St. John’s and if the colored people here show any interest and join our ranks the work on the building will start at once.”

A. C. Oglesby, Supreme Grand Deputy, Friends of the World (March 29, 1922)

In May of that same year in an apparently different initiative, an African American pastor named Rev. Jefferson Davis began a campaign to fund the Omaha Mission Hospital for African Americans. However, within a month the Nebraska Negro Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association rejected Rev. Davis’ proposal on the grounds that it was impractical and infeasible. In 1935, the Negro National Hospital Fund announced it was considering building a $400,000 facility with 100 beds in Omaha. However, this was part of an ambitious national plan to construct 90 facilities nationwide, which only ever amounted to a single hospital in Chicago.

Perhaps the 1945 Provident Hospital plan of the Nebraska Negro Medical Association was the grandest vision for a Black hospital in Omaha. Led by Omaha’s Dr. Craig Morris, DDS, the group was shored up by a recommendation by the National Urban League to launch a hospital for Omaha’s African American community. However, despite all the premise, plans and promise, it never opened. Learn more from my article, A History of North Omaha’s Provident Hospital.

Individual Black Doctors

With a growing population for almost 100 years of Omaha’s history, North Omaha needed medical services specifically for its residents and got them. Historical directories show physicians had private offices throughout the community, lining popular streets like North 24th, North 30th, North 16th, and Ames Avenue.

The Omaha Negro Medical Association was formed in 1914. Led by Dr. A. G. Edwards, MD, others involved included Dr. W. W. Peebles, , DDS; Dr. J. Merchant, PhG; Dr. L. E. Britt, MD, and; Dr. J. H. Hutton, MD.

Dr. Matthew Ricketts was the first African American doctor in Omaha. Some of the other African American healthcare providers located in North Omaha in history have included:

NameLifeActivePracticeAddress
Dr. W. H. C. Stephenson, M.D.—19001876PhysicianSouth 13th and Howard Street
Dr. Matthew O. Ricketts, M.D.1858—19171884—Physician2330 Ohio Street
Dr. J. C. Davis, M.D.1896—Physician2114 Cuming Street
Dr. Jesse H. Hutton, M.D.—19391900—Physician201 South 13th Street
Dr. W. M. Gordon, M.D.1902—Physician1818 Jackson Street
Dr. Mathew A. Williams, M.D.1909—Physician701 North 18th Street
Dr. Leonard E. Britt, M.D.1910—Physician108 South 14th Street
Dr. August G. Britt, M.D.1911—Physician18 Patterson Block
Dr. J. Boston Hill, M.D.1914—Physician1818 N. 20th Street
Dr. David W. Gooden, M.D.1914—Physician2211 Cuming Street
Dr. William C. Scott, M.D.1918—Physician2430 Lake Street
Dr. Roscoe C. Riddle, M.D.1918—Physician2401 Parker Street and 817 North 16th Street
Dr. A. L. Hawkins, M.D.1921—Physician2120 North 24th Street
Dr. John A. Singleton, D.D.S.Dentist2411 North 24th Street
Dr. E. L. Alexander, M.D.Physician1024 North 24th Street
Dr. Wesley Jones, D.D.SDentist1518 1/2 North 24th Street
Dr. Herbert Wiggins, M.D.Physician1518 1/2 North 24th Street
Dr. G. B. Lennox, D.D.SDentist1602 North 24th Street
Dr. A. A. Foster, M.D.Physician2420 North 24th Street
Dr. Price Terrell, M.D.Physician2420 North 24th Street
Dr. Aaron M. McMillan, M.D.Physician2420 North 24th Street
Dr. W. W. Solomon, M.D.Physician3022 North 24th Street
Dr. William H. Johnson, M.D.Physician2912 Manderson Street
Dr. W. W. Peebles, D.D.SDentist
Dr. Craig Morris, D.D.S.Dentist2407 Lake Street
Dr. A. G. EdwardsPhysician24th and Erskine Street
Dr. J. Merchant, PhGPharmacist

These individuals are important to note because they provided services that others often wouldn’t, especially in the historically and currently segregated community of North Omaha. However, they weren’t enough. Over the course of a century, North Omaha had at least eight hospitals serving it.

The following is a short history of the hospitals of North Omaha. After it is an examination of the current hospitals and healthcare services in North Omaha, as well as a short scan of the public health crisis facing the community.

Segregation in Omaha’s Hospitals Today

Omaha hospitals are not formally racially segregated today. All people, regardless of race, color or creed are afforded care according to need. Most hospitals in Omaha will not turn away patients if they cannot provide proof of pay.

However… today, it is indisputable that North Omaha has a medical desert. With more than 40,000 residents in its boundaries, there is a stark absence of medical service providers of all kinds. Making it worse, the community is greatly underinsured. That leaves people who have no insurance and no money needing to travel to other parts of the city to get care. North Omaha’s residents routinely suffer 30 minute commutes for routine healthcare, and emergency care takes exceptionally long amounts of time, too.

This medical desert results in de facto segregation in Omaha’s healthcare system.

A map of the medical desert in North Omaha by Ira Combs, the Community Liaison Nurse Coordinator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
This graphic was made by Ira Combs, the Community Liaison Nurse Coordinator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

According to Ira Combs, the Community Liaison Nurse Coordinator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, medical desert illustrated above shows how concentrated North Omaha’s denial of services is; not coincidentally, this area also has an expanding population of African Americans, too. There is a concentration of healthcare and hospitals in west Omaha now, beyond North 72nd Street. While on its surface this is due to economics and population, in reality this is caused by the racism that upholds white supremacy throughout the city.


Charles Drew Health Center

It’s important to note the role of the Charles Drew Health Center, or CDHC, in North Omaha today. In 2013, African Americans comprised 13% of the population; that year, 51% of all CDHC patients were African American. The CDHC is a modern-day response to segregation in Omaha.

The original clients of the CDHC were women, infants, and children who were low-income. Throughout its existence patients have been predominantly African American.

“In 2017 Charles Drew served over 11,745 unique patients. We facilitated over 39,000 patient visits. Patients 18 and under represented 35% of our patient population. Although 54% of our patients were uninsured – none were denied health care services due to their inability to pay.”

Kenny McMorris, CEO of the Charles Drew Health Center

Charles R. Drew (1904-1950) was the most prominent African American surgeon and medical researcher in American history. He researched blood transfusions, developed improved techniques for blood storage, and created blood banks during World War II. The CDHC was founded in 1982 by residents of North Omaha to “provide complete comprehensive primary health care services to anyone in its service area, regardless of the ability to pay.”

Opened in partnership with Creighton University, the main location opened in 1984 in a converted laundromat in the Hilltop Public Housing Project at North 30th and Burdette Streets. That building was eventually demolished and replaced with a facility that today has more than 27,000 square feet of space with dozens of rooms, modern facilities and more. Throughout the years, the CDHC expanded to several other locations throughout North Omaha starting with the former Johnson Medical Building at 2912 Manderson Street in the early 1990s. Currently, there are 12 total locations including the Manderson and Burdette facilities.


The Future

Learning about the history of hospitals in North Omaha provides no relief from this picture, either, as we learn that healthcare and hospital segregation happened on a micro-scale across the last century-plus of the city’s history.

Instead, Omaha must embark on a massive scale program focused on dismantling the social / cultural / economic / structural system of white supremacy in healthcare throughout the entire city. Until then, de facto segregation will continue to be omnipresent throughout the entire city.


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Published by Adam Fletcher

An internationally recognized expert in youth engagement, Adam leads the Freechild Institute and SoundOut. He is also the editor NorthOmahaHistory.com; the author of Student Voice Revolution and twelve other books; and the host of the North Omaha History Podcast.

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