|Detroit had 18 Black-owned and operated hospitals: Why they vanished
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1966
This year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History set health and wellness as the theme for Black History Month. In Detroit, the history of Black health care is largely a saga of Black physicians who established a parallel medical universe alongside the white hospitals that shunned them and their Black patients.
In 1844, four Catholic nuns — Loyola Ritchie, Rebecca Delone, Felicia Fenwick and Rosaline Brown — came to Detroit. On June 9, 1845, they established St. Vincent's Hospital, the first hospital in the entire Northwest Territory. It was located at Randolph and Larned in what is now downtown Detroit.
The first patient — Robert Bridgeman — was a homeless man who had no means to pay for his health care.
In 1850, the sisters moved to a larger site on Clinton Street near Gratiot and reopened their hospital with a new name — St. Mary’s. In 1879, a larger facility was built. (The original St. Vincent's site is now a parking lot for city council members and their staff.)
Although these Catholic sisters were dedicated to assisting the poor and downtrodden, including unwed mothers, the homeless, orphans and prostitutes, their pioneering hospital did not provide care for African Americans.
Dr. Joseph Ferguson, the first Black doctor to practice in Detroit, was born in Virginia in 1821. After attending Cleveland Medical School, he moved to Detroit in 1857 and became a conductor and stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. He was present at the Detroit meeting where Frederick Douglass and John Brown met on March 12, 1859, a few months before Brown was hanged for leading an abortive raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.
After the Civil War broke out, Ferguson became a leader in the movement to provide public education for Black children, who were then denied admission to Detroit public schools. In 1863, he provided medical care to the dozens of African American Detroiters attacked by white mobs in a race riot that year.
When he war ended, Ferguson returned to his medical education, becoming the first Black student at what is now the Wayne State University School of Medicine. In 1869, the same year he received his medical degree, Ferguson became one of the plaintiffs in Workman v. Detroit Board of Education, a lawsuit that challenged segregated and inferior schooling for African American students. As a result of that lawsuit, his son, William Ferguson would attend the first racially integrated kindergarten class, and grow up to become the first African American in the Michigan Legislature.
Ferguson dedicated his life to serving Detroit's black residents, and he embodied the idea that the struggles for civil rights and equitable health care were inextricably intertwined. But although he lived just five blocks from St. Mary's, neither he nor any other Black doctor could practice there, or at any of the other Detroit hospitals that existed in his lifetime.
Even a century later, when doctors bought St. Mary's hospital and renamed it Detroit Memorial Hospital, African Americans could only be seen if they were admitted by a white physician, and most were segregated in a Colored Ward on the hospital's 4th floor.
In all of its incarnations — St. Vincent’s, St. Mary’s and Detroit Memorial, the hospital discriminated against African American patients, establishing a tradition of health care inequity that has persisted into the 21st Century.
In 1863, Harper Hospital opened as a military hospital to treat injured and sick Civil War soldiers, including African Americans who had fought for the Union in the U.S. Colored Troops. Three years later, it became a general hospital. But it would be nearly another century before African American physicians were finally allowed to practice at Harper in 1960.
Jim Crow medicine
The stark racial disparities in health care were not a phenomenon unique to Detroit.
After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency founded in 1865, opened 90 hospitals in the former Confederacy, treating thousands of newly freed African Americans, most of whom had never received professional medical care. It was the first federal health care system in the United States.
Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. began as the Freedmen’s Hospital. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to be licensed as a doctor in the United States, became a pioneering physician at a Freedmen’s Hospital in Virginia.
But the initiative was short-lived. By 1872, the federal government had ended the Freedmen's Bureau, whose critics worried that it would engender a culture of government dependence among its previously enslaved clients. Most of the Freedman's hospitals. including the one that employed Crumpler, were closed, even as cholera and smallpox outbreaks raged. (Howard University Hospital, which still exists, was a notable exception.)
Black doctors in the North were the first to mount a serious response to Jim Crow medicine.
In 1891, an African American surgeon named Daniel Hale Williams founded Provident Hospital in Chicago.
The first Black-owned-and-operated hospital in the United States. It became a principal training school for Black nurses, who were blocked from admission to the nursing schools that served white students.
Provident in Chicago became a mecca for Black medical school graduates from Michigan and other states where white-owned hospitals denied Black doctors admission to practice. After interning there, Black doctors at Provident would go and establish other Provident Hospitals in Baltimore, Kansas City and Fort Lauderdale. Michelle Obama was born at Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1964.
In the early 1900s, David and Daisy Northcross, Black husband and wife physicians who had found work at Booker T. Washington's Alabama-based Tuskegee Institute, moved south and opened their own their own hospital in Montgomery. But the hospital was soon threatened by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and in 1916 the Northcrosses fled Montgomery and moved to Detroit, where they established the city's first Black-owned and operated hospital Mercy General, the following year.
Originally located on Russell Street in Black Bottom, Mercy would move twice before settling at 668 Winder St., near the intersection Winder and Hastings. Along with the hospital, which included a nurses’ training school, the Norcrosses established a drugstore and a hotel.
Dr. David Northcross was killed by a tenant of the hotel in 1933. His nephew, Dr. Remus Robinson, became director of the hospital in 1946. In 1960, when Hastings Street was demolished to make way for the Interstate 375 and I-75 freeways, Mercy moved to the mansion-filled neighborhood of Boston-Edison, where Dr. Daisy Northcross lived. Daisy died in 1956, but the hospital continued under the management of her son, Dr. David Northcross Jr., until 1976.
An association of their own
Since most chapters of the American Medical Association barred Black physicians from membership, African American doctors established their own medical organization, the National Medical Association in 1895. The Allied Medical Society was the Detroit chapter of the NMA. The Norcrosses and their nephew, Remus Robinson were early members.
Led by Dr. James Ames, the Allied Medical Society established the first Black non-profit hospital in Detroit, Dunbar Hospital in 1918, at the corner of Frederick and St. Antoine streets. The hospital's physicians included prominent Detroit doctors like Robert Greenidge, Albert Cleage Sr., Lloyd Bailer and Herbert Sims.
The hospital had 27-beds and an operating room managed by Dr. Alexander Turner, the first African American surgeon in Detroit, who would join Mercy's Remus Robinson in leading the integration of Grace Hospital, which later merged with the Jewish-founded Sinai Hospital and became Sinai-Grace.
Turner, the first Black surgeon in Detroit was one founding physicians at Dunbar Memorial Hospital. But his accomplishments did not insulate him from the virulent racism that prevailed in his time; a white mob forced him out of his home on Spokane Street in 1925.
And we should all know the story of his co-worker at Dunbar, Dr. Ossian Sweet, Sweet was one of nine Black defendants charged with murder in 1926 after the deaths of two members of another white mob that had gathered to protest Sweet's move into a white Detroit neighborhood. Defended by Clarence Darrow and eventually exonerated, Sweet left his medical practice to run a small hospital in the Black community.
Sweet was beset by depression (his wife, daughter, and brother died from tuberculosis shortly after the trials), along with ill health and financial troubles. He committed suicide in 1960.
Altogether, there were 18 Black-owned and operated hospitals in Detroit. Black doctors who fought racism in the health care industry became some of the city's most important civil rights activists, although many of their contributions remain unheralded.
The Allied Medical Society, which later rechristened itself the Detroit Medical Society, was one of the primary funders of the first Freedom Fund Dinner for the Detroit Branch of the NAACP. Now known as the Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, the event has grown into one of the most important African American fundraisers in the United States
Dr. Marjorie Peebles-Meyers, in 1943, became the first Black woman to graduate from Wayne State University Medical School and would then become the first Black female resident at Detroit Receiving Hospital, and the first to be named chief resident.
Dr. Natalia Tanner, was a medical and civil rights pioneer in Detroit. In 1951, she became the first African American fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics; and first African American board-certified pediatrician in Detroit. he following year, she became the first African American to join the staff of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
Before she passed away in 2018 at the age of 96, Tanner said that in her early years at Children’s, African American patients were still being placed in segregated wards, and recalled that neither her credentials nor her concerns were taken seriously until she out-performed her white colleagues. In 1983, 32 years after her unprecedented election to the American Academy of Pediatrics, she became president of its Michigan chapter.
In 1955, Dr. Charles H. Wright, an OB-GYN, became one of the first African Americans to be allowed privileges at Women’s Hospital in Detroit. Women’s Hospital became Hutzel Women’s Hospital. In 1965, and Wright founded the International Afro-American Museum — the same year.
There were 500 Black hospitals in the United States at the height of segregation, 18 in Detroit. Today, there is only one — Howard University Medical Center.
Many of these hospitals struggled financially and suffered from mismanagement. But the primary cause of their extinction was the legislation that established Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Federally funded health care became a tool for the government to enforce the desegregation of white-run hospitals that had denied medical privileges to African American physicians and declined to treat African American patients. Hospitals who wished to receive Medicare and Medicaid payments for the care of elderly or low-income patients had to conform with federal civil rights laws. In short, if white hospitals wanted to be able to receive government money, they had to allow Black doctors to practice, and Black patients to be seen.
This was ironic end of Detroit's Back hospitals, which had been created as a response to racism in health care.
Jamon Jordan is the City of Detroit's Official Historian and the founder of the Black Scroll Network History & Tours. He teachers a class on Detroit history at the University of Michigan.