Dr. Herman Watson, a private practice surgeon in Kansas City, began his medical career 50 years ago when he accepted an internship at General Hospital and Medical Center in KCMO. It was a hospital with deep historic roots that was formed when the General Hospital #1 – for Whites – and General Hospital #2 – for Blacks – was merged.
The two hospitals merged in 1957. But 13 years later, Watson says the vestiges of segregation still survived. While General Hospital and Medical Center integrated both White and Black staff in the same building, Watson vividly remembers White and Black staff working in separate ends of the building.
Despite increasing integration in the medical profession, Watson says KU Medical School still only allowed a limited number of Black students at a time. Watson was one of two Black students accepted into the program in 1966.
“They told us, we’ll let two of you in and we’ll flunk you out as soon as possible,” Watson said.
While it may have been tough for him, Watson says his experience was nothing like that of the Black doctors upon whose shoulders he stands.
Early Medical Care for Black Americans in Kansas City
At the turn of the century, Kansas City had a population of approximately 160,000 residents, and approximately 10% or 16,000 of them were Black. For hospitalization, indigent patients – those who couldn’t afford private care – were relegated to a few spaces reserved for Blacks and Browns at Kansas City’s Municipal Hospital. However, the facility, built in 1873, had a reputation for providing poor service overall, even to White patients. Neglect of Black patients at this segregated facility was commonplace.
Overall, in the early 1900s, the hospitalization options for Negroes were limited.
Dr. Thomas C. Unthank, a graduate of Howard University Medical School, partnered in 1898 with Dr. S. H. Thompson to open – exclusively for African Americans – the 45-bed private Douglass Hospital in the Quindaro neighborhood of Kansas City, KS. The hospital was named for Rev. Calvin Douglass from Western University, and the hospital was relocated to the Western University campus in 1937.
The hospital drew patients from both sides of the state line and the demand was so high that Unthank opened John Lange Hospital in a 26-room building at 1227 Michigan in Kansas City, MO. Lange was an investor in the hotel, but with his death in 1916, the hospital lost its financial support and closed in 1920.
In 1910, Dr. John Edward Perry created the Perry Sanitarium located at 1214 Vine. In 1918, Perry worked with the Provident Association, a charitable organization run by White Kansas City businessmen who eventually took over management of the Sanatorium. They merged with the Phyllis Wheatley civic organization in 1918 to form Wheatley-Provident Hospital, which occupied a former parochial school.
General Hospital #2 Opens in Antiquated Building
These early hospitals proved inadequate to handle the number of black patients in the area. A devastating flood in Kansas City in 1903, made it clear, just how inadequate the hospitalization options were for Blacks. Because of the lack of hospital space, a large auditorium at KC’s Convention Hall was forced to serve as a makeshift hospital for Black flood victims.
Drs. Unthank and Perry began pressuring the city to open a hospital to serve people of color, envisioning a place that was more accessible to African Americans than private hospitals and where future African-American doctors and nurses could train. Plans were underway to build a new Municipal Hospital and the doctors hoped the old facility would become the place they’d planned for. In 1908, when the new City Hospital – named General Hospital #1 – opened near the old building, the 35-year-old antiquated former facility was left to Black and Brown patients – and named General Hospital #2.
Initially the staff remained White, but in 1911 four Black doctors joined the staff, including Drs. Upthank and Perry. Several interns followed.
* In 1911 a Negro School of Nursing was opened in conjunction with the hospital.
* In 1914, the first Black superintendent over the hospital was appointed.
* By 1922, General Hospital #2 attained the Class A accreditation from the American Medical Association, the Black National Medical Association, and the American College of Surgeons.
* In 1923, General Hospital #2 began only admitting Black patients, and Brown and other non-White patients were routed to General Hospital #1.
Training Center for Black Doctors
Dr. Unthank envisioned #2 as a place where future African-American doctors and nurses could train, and that’s exactly what it became. In addition to the nursing school, opened in 1911, #2 became a center of training for new doctors.
In the 1920s, with limited access to White medical schools, most of the country’s Black doctors were graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN. Unable to work on White patients, most of these new doctors were forced to find internships in segregated facilities. For the approximately 125 Black doctors graduating from medical schools, half of the accredited internships were offered in Kansas City or St. Louis.
By the early ’60s, more than 400 Black doctors and a small group of dentists received post-graduate training and medical experience at No. 2. Most of the Black doctors practicing in Kansas City at the time had also interned at No. 2.
Pendegrast Politics and Medicine Mix
As a public hospital under the control of the local government, both General Hospitals #1 and #2, were not immune to the powerful influence of Kansas City political “Boss Tom ” Pendergast, who controlled Kansas City and Jackson County, MO from 1925 to 1939. The Pendergast regime played a large role in the successes and failures of #2.
Politics played a role in the operation of the hospital from its early days. From the beginning, the superintendents of the hospital changed often, depending on the results of the election, with new leadership placing their man at the helm of the hospital. Not surprisingly, the level of political influence over the hospital — similar to the level of influence across the city – escalated during the Pendergast years. With Pendergast appointees in charge of the city government, including the health department, politics entered more and more into the affairs of the city hospital and a point was reached where the superintendent could not fire [an] orderly without the consent of some political boss,” wrote Dr. Milton C. Lewis, a member of the #2 staff in his brief memoir.
According to Lewis, Black physicians who wanted a successful career had to do more than possess medical skill; they also had to navigate the city’s political environment.
According to a 1933 report in the Jackson County Medical Journal, doctors had “to go to a political boss to gain his support before being considered eligible for appointment . . . [and] the candidate’s real or imagined control of a block of votes [was] the chief consideration for appointment.”
By 1930, General Hospital No. 2 accounted for 95% of all professional and semiprofessional black employees of the municipal government of Kansas City, Missouri, making it the city’s most fertile ground for political patronage in the black community. The hospital employed an all-black staff of 292 individuals, including 72 professionals made up of doctors, dentists, and nurses. A full 70% of Kansas City’s black physicians—35 in all—served as staff members for General Hospital No. 2 on a full- or part-time basis.
The Pendergast Good – A New Hospital Building
A portion of Kansas City’s black community had entered into an arrangement with the Pendergast machine, with the proposal for a new hospital emerging as a leading mutually beneficial development.
The need to replace the dilapidated building, which was now 50 years old, was fairly obvious. Several reports, including one by a community organization. As early as 1923, a report from the Jackson County Medical Society pointed out, among many deficiencies, that the building was “infested with rats and vermin,” that the building the nurses lived in had a linking room, was inadequately heated and over-crowded, and that beside being repaired over and over, the building was simply word out. Also supporting the replacement of the old building was a community committee that included some White civic leaders.
Funding for the new hospital was included in a 1925 bond issue but complaints from White neighbors near the proposed new location held up construction. Finally a new location at 600 E. 22nd Street was agreed upon, and construction was finally underway.
While Pendergast regime would readily take credit for their role in getting the hospital approved, a fire that spread through the existing building in July 1927 helped move the construction plans forward. The fire endangered the lives of 60 patients and caused $30,000 in damages.
A State-of-Art New Facility
The city finally approved plans for construction in 1928, with the building to be sited near the old one and General Hospital No. 1, at what is still known as Hospital Hill. Built at a cost of $300,000, it opened on March 2, 1930, to great fanfare.
A special edition of the Kansas City Call dated Feb. 28, 1930, announced the “New City Hospital Opens Sunday.” “Most modern public hospital in the country now ready for occupancy. Eight floors of brand new, spic and span equipment fulfills fondest dreams of public and physicians.”
The editor continued, “to begin with there is not a single second-hand piece of anything in the new building. In the second place the city officials have not only built a new hospital, but the best hospital with the most modern design and have installed in the building the latest and best equipment available.
“The only City Hospital in the U.S.A. ministering exclusively to colored people and completely officered by a colored staff is General Hospital No. 2 of Kansas City, Missouri,” read the ad copy in the Call.
Pendergast Corruption and Deficiencies
Despite delivering on a new building, Pendergast corruption led to a series of deficiencies at the hospital.
In his memoir, Lewis was initially excited about the new building, but he added, “before long the whites at No. 1 had eased a [quantity] of [essential] equipment from No. 2. Nothing was done about it.”
As well-equipped as No. 1 was, a documentary about Truman Medical Center’s history revealed how staff at No. 2 had to improvise without basic medical equipment. One nurse at No. 2, the late Octavia McDonald said she remembered they did not have an incubator available for a newborn.
“We had to use a basket and a light bulb and we put the towel over the light bulb,” McDonald said in the documentary. “It always affects your training when you don’t have the right equipment to work with.”
Nurses had to make bandages out of linen and make their own saline solution IVs and their own dressings. Staff learned to make things happen out of practically nothing.
According to a report on pendergastks.org, during a period in the early 1930s the Call reported a decline in the quality of medical services, bedpans sitting unattended for 24-hour periods, hospital staff demanding what amounted to bribes from patients, and a payroll that had been padded in the amount of $40,000. Political corruption and patronage continued to overshadow medical concerns, with some individuals benefiting greatly from machine connections.
While things improved some with the end of the Pendergast era in 1939, the city was left with considerable debt and shortages still prevailed at the hospital. Because of the program’s shortcomings the number of interns at the hospital dropped to nearly zero and the American Medical Association revoked #2’s accreditation for internships.
Despite attempts at reform in city government, scarity of supplies continued at #2 and in 1946, black doctors declared a limited strike, by refusing to perform elective surgeries or other non-emergency services. Their strike worked. In the same years, the city issued bonds to construct new wings at both public hospitals, finally addressing the overcrowded conditions.
The Merger and Lasting Impact
Despite improvements at #2 the hospital suffered immensely from the national shortage of Black doctors. With an increase in demand for Black doctors and integration beginning to open up more opportunities for them to pursue internships as well as employment, #2 found it difficult to compete.
In his memoir, Lewis reflected that the fall of the machine “was the beginning of the end for all Negro doctors as far as the hospital was concerned[,] for the Negroes could once get political aid but those days are gone.”
The hospital began to rely more on White doctors and writing sometime after 1947, Lewis concluded, “the Negro medical profession is at the lowest depth since 1925.”
In 1957, the city council voted to consolidate General Hospitals No. 1 and No. 2. In 1959 the black patients and staff moved into No. 1 in 1959. In 1962, the city continued to provide funding for the hospital, but it turned over management to a nonprofit organization that renamed it General Hospital and Medical Center. That is where Dr. Watson landed in 1970 as an intern.
Watson, who completed his residency in New York City, says his work at General Hospital and Medical Center is what really prepared him for his career.
He says he learned from some of the best Black physicians in Kansas City like Dr. Carl Peterson, Dr. George Hedgepeth and Dr. William H. Bryan who all took part in shaping the early General Hospital No. 2.
“You can’t believe how nice these doctors were,” Watson said. “It was almost like family.”
Watson agrees, the impact of No. 2 still endures.
“If there had not been a segregated health system, a lot of people in the African-American community would not have wanted to rise higher than what they were allowed to,” said Dr. Louis Peterson in the documentary about No. 2. “They get ideas, they get motivated. They want to be achievers. And I think having, number two here, it allowed people to get educated, gain skills and dream bigger.”
In 1976, General Hospital was renamed Truman Medical Center, which still operates on Hospital Hill today.