Trail of History honors Charlotte hospital founder Jane Wilkes

At 7.5-feet in height, it’s tough to miss the mysteriously draped 800-pound figure that was fork-lifted into place May 1 across from the Levine Cancer Institute on East Morehead Street.

On Tuesday, the veil will be lifted at a private ceremony. Afterward, the city will its first full look at Jane Renwick Smedberg Wilkes (1827-1913), a largely forgotten woman who helped found Charlotte’s first hospital in 1876. She also helped created one of the nation’s first hospitals dedicated to African-Americans, Good Samaritan Hospital.

The sculpture is the second of what eventually will be more than 20 statues of historically significant Charlotteans erected along the stretch of Little Sugar Creek Greenway between Seventh Street to East Morehead Street.

The image of Wilkes joins a previously erected statue of Revolutionary War figure Capt. James Jack, who is said to have carried a local Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775. Some historians believe that document, along with the Mecklenburg Resolves, influenced the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

Organizers of the Trail of History expect to unveil three more statues on the greenway in the next 12 months. The money will be mostly private, donated by history-minded individuals or entities that have a connection to the figures being depicted.

Fear of hospitals

Wilkes is the first woman to be honored, chosen by local historians because of her lasting impact. The modern-day results of her charitable acts include not only Carolinas HealthCare Systems, but Thompson Child & Family Focus, which she and her husband, John Wilkes, helped fund as the city’s first orphanage.

“Jane came down from New York and could have led a quiet life, supporting her husband and raising her children…but they became a real part of the community and it shows the difference one individual can make,” said Shelia Bumgarner of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room. The library holds hundreds of Wilkes-Smedberg family letters, written from 1847 to about 1913.

“She played a major role in providing health care to the people of this city at a time when people were actually scared of hospitals,” Bumgarner said. “When the hospital first opened, there was almost a riot outside. People thought if you went there, you died.”

A park for families

Carolinas HealthCare System was a major contributor to the statue, giving about $200,000. Wilkes’ descendants also contributed for the statue, which was made by artist Wendy M. Ross of Bethesda, Maryland.

Scott Kerr of the Carolinas HealthCare Foundation said Carolinas Healthcare considers Wilkes to be the “mother of hospitals in North Carolina.” The park featuring Wilkes’ statue is just across from the medical center’s campus on East Morehead.

Hospital officials expect the 1/3-acre park will be used frequently by the families of patients at the nearby Levine Cancer Institute. It is to be called the Robert Haywood Morrison Garden, in recognition of $250,000 donated by the Robert Haywood Morrison Foundation.

Among those expected to attend the unveiling is Charlottean Margo Fonda, 50, a great-great-granddaughter of Jane Wilkes. Fonda said she was made aware at a young age of her ancestors’ accomplishments, including the fact that Jane Wilkes’ father-in-law, Charles Wilkes, was an explorer and admiral in the Union navy.

“Jane Wilkes was from a time when women didn’t vote, didn’t hold jobs and stayed in the background, but she did incredible things,” Fonda said. “And she was really humble about it, not even acknowledging it in her autobiography. The idea of a statue to her is really cool.”

‘Making things happen’

Wilkes, who family friends called Jeanie, was born in New York City in 1827 and moved to Charlotte on May 10, 1854 after her marriage to John “Jack” Wilkes of Washington DC. He was also her first cousin.

Although the couple had domestic staff slaves prior to the Civil War, they contributed to a number of Episcopal charities that provided educational opportunities for freed men. This included contributing money to what is today St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, founded to educate blacks in 1867.

Her husband’s many accomplishments included getting a charter to create the first bank in Charlotte after the Civil War. He also joined with other leading citizens to form the Charlotte Literary and Library Association, the city’s first library open to the public.

After establishing the St. Peter’s Episcopal hospital, Jane took on the added task of raising money for a hospital to treat African Americans. That hospital eventually merged with what is today Carolinas HealthCare.

George Dewey is among the community leaders who created the Trail of History concept and he says the sculpture of Jane Wilkes’ is a fitting combination of elegance and determination.

“Jane Wilkes is not only deserving of a statue because of her importance to history, but because she represents what’s best about the people of Mecklenburg County,” said Dewey.

“What she did was something that had to be done in our community. There’s a history here of people making things happen like that, whether its (former Bank of America CEO) Hugh McColl or the family behind Duke Power. Jane Wilkes is at the top of that list.”