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Charlotte hospital desegregated in 1963

Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch writes on Health for The Charlotte Observer. Her column appears each Tuesday.

Our country recently marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” along with other important dates in the nation’s civil rights movement.

Charlotte has another 50th anniversary that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

On Sept. 10, 1963, Charlotte Memorial Hospital – now Carolinas Medical Center – officially ended its practice of segregating patients by race and sometimes refusing to admit black patients at all.

Change at the city’s public hospital came after pressure from black leaders and only after a terrible incident that demonstrated the confusion over hospital policy.

On June 13, 1960, 17-year-old Jimmy Small was transported to Charlotte Memorial from Gaston Memorial Hospital, where he had been taken after a car accident that killed two other people and left Small with a broken leg and severe head injuries.

Small was refused admission at the Memorial emergency room, according to the 2002 book by former Observer reporter Jerry Shinn, “A Great, Public Compassion: The Story of Charlotte Memorial Hospital and Carolinas Medical Center.”

Small died that night after being transferred to Mercy Hospital, then owned by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, who had desegregated their hospital in 1954.

According to Shinn’s book, the chief of the Gaston rescue crew told a reporter that when “the girls there (in the Memorial ER) saw he was a Negro, they refused point blank to even look at him. … They said they couldn’t take him unless a doctor was with him or a doctor called to admit him.” He said that had not been the requirement in the past.

Hal Green, Charlotte Memorial’s assistant administrator at the time, told reporters that the hospital’s policy since May 6, 1949, had been that “colored patients in need of lifesaving services will receive those services in the emergency room,” Shinn wrote.

Green was quoted: “The case in question concerning Jimmy Small was processed in error by a member of the hospital staff. The incident is most regrettable and corrective steps have already been taken.”

The next year, Dr. Reginald Hawkins, then a young black dentist who became known later as “the father of the Charlotte civil rights movement,” began campaigning for the desegregation of staff and patients at the hospital, Shinn wrote.

Hawkins, who died at 83 in 2007, was outspoken and pushed for desegregation in many other areas of Charlotte life. In November 1965, his house was bombed, along with the homes of fellow black civil rights activists Kelly Alexander, Fred Alexander and Julius Chambers. But Hawkins’ advocacy led to change at Memorial.

In 1961, the first black doctor, C.W. Williams, was named to Memorial’s medical staff. And in 1962, hospital officials announced that black patients would be housed on the sixth floor of a new wing.

“Obviously the hospital board and administrators considered Memorial’s admission of a few black patients on a segregated basis a significant step, but it failed to satisfy Hawkins,” Shinn wrote.

Hawkins organized demonstrations and challenged the use of public money at segregated hospitals. He filed a complaint with the U.S. Public Health Service, charging that three black patients had been refused admission to Memorial.

On Aug. 22, 1963, Public Health Service officials met with Memorial’s board of managers. And if it wasn’t clear before, it became clear then that “‘separate but equal’ no longer would be an acceptable defense against charges of discrimination,” Shinn wrote.

At its next meeting, the hospital board voted unanimously to adopt the same admission policy for people of all races.

It wasn’t until March 1965 that Charlotte’s other major hospital, Presbyterian, agreed to admit patients without regard to race.

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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