Oral Histories from General Hospital #2

(originally published 2/14/19)

In 2001, an organization with which I worked produced a fine piece of local history – Trial & Triumph: Historical Perspectives on Community Health Provision in Kansas City, funded by the Missouri Humanities Council. Its focus is Kansas City’s segregated General Hospital No. 2, and it was the brainchild of two former colleagues – Jim Scott, architect and urban planner extraordinaire, and Marva Weigelt, one of the best storytellers I know. I treasure the copy of the work they left with me.

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The 50-year story of General Hospital No. 2 begins in 1908 when the new City Hospital (No. 1) for whites is built, and No. 2 reopens as the “colored division.” It ends, for the most part, in 1959, when the two hospitals are reconsolidated, prompted by the need to address a city budgetary issue. In between there are decades of distinction and disgrace, interlaced with political corruption, complacency and benign neglect from many fronts. In timeframe and in experience, the story of No. 2 parallels the struggle of black professionals everywhere to gain the positions they had rightfully earned, and to be afforded even a modicum of equitable resources.

Trial & Triumph builds upon four oral histories of medical professionals and city staff who were there in the final years before consolidation. These first-person accounts are compelling, but at the beginning of the report, we are reminded of the “truth” in oral histories. “Oral histories are constructed in the present by individuals who are piecing together their own past.” Histories unearthed from documents, artifacts, even written accounts, use those details to build scaffolding for a large scale story. Histories that spring from oral accounts deconstruct that larger story to find the human experiences. Through that lens, the absolutes disappear, and what is known as bad can also reveal some good, and what is easy to understand today is more nuanced in its time.

Each of the four oral histories provide similar views from slightly different perspectives. But in the following select quotes, each of them express some of the good and the bad of the No. 2 experience, their individual trials and triumphs.

Dr. Starks Williams joined the staff at No. 2 in 1954 when he came to Kansas City to be part of the Doctor’s Clinic, a local minority-owned group practice.

  • In 1954, I was invited to join the Doctor’s Clinic in Kansas City. This group practice was on the cutting edge of medicine, not only in Kansas City, but also across the nation. According to documented record, the Doctor’s Clinic was the first minority multi-specialty group practice in the nation. Following my arrival, all the physicians became board certified in their specialties. This elevated our group to a stature that was not duplicated elsewhere in the Kansas City area.
  • They had a little upheaval in Kansas City about these young doctors getting board-certified and wanting a better place to practice and a better opportunity to compete equitably. We weren’t aspiring to be the best black doctors in town; we were aspiring to be the best doctors.

Dr. Carl Peterson came to No. 2 for his internship in 1941, and was a surgical resident there until 1949. He would go on to be Chief of Surgery at Research Medical Center.

  • (Concerning the Doctor’s Clinic) We had visions of, one of these days we might become like a Mayo Clinic. There was a great deal of inertia among the African-American community medical people. But we were on our own and would have group meetings at which a case would be presented. And discussion would be made by one of us, and we invited the entire African-American community. Some came; others thought that we were trying to corner the market–trying to get everyone to come into our lair, so to speak. But we were trying to advance medical education in the community.
  • There was a tunnel between the two hospitals…through which anything that was good that was supposed to be delivered to No. 2 Hospital was waylaid, more times than I can count on my fingers and toes.

Nurse Cleo Brown DeGraffenreid was 18 when she traveled from Oklahoma to attend nursing school at No. 2 in 1947. She had a long and successful career in other Kansas City hospitals, and served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force.

  • One of the biggest challenges was just the whole setup of General No. 2; there were not enough resources. It was a trial to go through that. Just for an example, you only had a certain number of sheets to use, and it didn’t matter how they got. They might start out reasonably clean, but you might have to end your shift and leave a mess for the next shift, because that was all you had.
  • The City gave [the nursing students] $5 a month; when you got to be a junior you got $6.50 a month; and when you got to be a senior, you got $8 a month. But what you could do with that! I could buy my stockings and my shoe polish and that kind of thing…but they were getting work out of us, because we spent some portion of every day on the wards; they got work out of us.

Albert Mauro came to Kansas City for his graduate internship in city management, and eventually landed in the city’s Research and Budget Department. His fiscally focused recommendation to consolidate the two hospitals launched Mauro as a respected voice in local community development over the next sixty years.

  • I came to Kansas City in 1951 out of graduate school…I was really shocked, coming from Connecticut, to find the segregated city–it was really segregated–no question about it… I found this to be really, not only offensive, but also difficult to understand.
  • The biggest triumph in that era was that we did it before even the courts ordered desegregation. The City did it on its own. See, that was before the court order came down about school desegregation. And I’m very proud of that. I called it “consolidation” rather than “integration” purposely. I thought I was pretty clever, coming up with that. It was so transparent, but at that point, if you talked about integrating the hospitals, that would have been the cause célèbre.

Oral histories are irreplaceable sources of information, and Trial & Triumph was fortunate in its timing. By 2001, many of the leading voices of that era had already passed away, including the much-admired Dr. Samuel Rodgers, who took a pivotal role in the consolidation.  Since the report, Dr. Peterson passed away in 2007 at the age of 92. To the best of my knowledge, the other three contributors are still living in Kansas City.

In the process of putting this post together, I came across this KCPT production of Kevin Wilmott’s 2011 film, From Separate to Equal: The Creation of Truman Medical Center. If you haven’t seen it, take some time. It covers the broader history of health care (or lack thereof) for the area’s “colored” communities, and the amazing people who made it possible for black patients to have access to a higher standard of care, and for black doctors and nurses to learn their skills from professionals.

From Separate to Equal: The Creation of Truman Medical Center

(Photo: Reprint of a photo from a 1915 edition of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP.)

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