A new film documents the proud history and sad end of Homer G. Phillips Hospital

Sep 15, 1999 at 4:00 am
"My mother died in the basement of a white hospital, poorly lit, dank and smelly, on an open ward where men, women and children were all hospitalized together. I can never forget the feeling of sadness I had as a little boy when my grandmother used to bring me there." — Dr. John Gladney in The Jewel

When Homer G. Phillips Hospital opened in 1937, a parade marked the event. A new hospital dedicated to the care of the city's "colored" was seen as progress. When it closed 42 years later in 1979, there was marching of a different sort.

People protested the decision by then-Mayor Jim Conway to close the hospital in the 2400 block of Whittier, just north of Martin Luther King Boulevard. Then, as now, Zenobia Thompson was in the forefront, making her opinions known.

The history of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, including accounts of its controversial closing, is the subject of the new documentary The Jewel: The Story of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital for the Colored, which premieres 6 p.m. Sunday at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

Picking Homer G. Phillips to close instead of the city's other public hospital, City Hospital No. 1, showed the city's base motivation for its wrong decision, Thompson believes. "City Hospital always got more resources than Homer G. Phillips. We were always pinched for resources," says Thompson, who was a graduate of Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing and later worked as a nurse at the hospital. "Even with the concept that the city couldn't afford two hospitals, the decision to close Homer G. Phillips was a racist decision."

Thompson worked as a registered nurse at Phillips for two years in the 1960s, then worked at Barnes Hospital for nine years before returning to work at Phillips until it closed. Phillips was a newer building and was located closer to patients who used it as their hospital. After Conway decided to shut down Phillips, Thompson and her fellow protesters predicted the chain of events that would ensue: "We projected that City Hospital would close. It closed. The condition of that building forced them to abandon it. Then they had Regional. That was a private hospital funded by the city — just think of that strange connection. We predicted that in 10 years, when that contract was up, Regional would close. That happened. Now we have no structure dedicated to providing indigent health care."

In the absence of a city-administered hospital for the indigent, the city runs clinics and refers patients through ConnectCare for treatment in private hospitals, which are later reimbursed by city, state and federal health programs. Thompson calls ConnectCare "really a loose connection" and accuses BJC — based at Barnes and Jewish hospitals — of helping run the program so it can receive federal compensation for indigent care.

Conway, who was mayor when Phillips was closed, was interviewed for the documentary. The way he sees it, he had little choice but to close Phillips. The city was running the two hospitals at a combined deficit of $40 million per year. "Unfortunately, some political leaders wanted us to continue to have two hospitals, one essentially black and one essentially white, at a time in history when that wasn't a reasonable proposition," says Conway. When he convened a committee to recommend what to do, Conway recalls that the internal decision was clear: Close Homer G. Phillips, in part because eroding segregation barriers gave many African-American physicians and interns a wider choice of where to practice, and they no longer chose Phillips. Complaints about foreign doctors at Phillips, and the links City Hospital No. 1 had to St. Louis University and Washington University medical schools, led to the choice of City Hospital No. 1 as the survivor.

Conway claims that the long-range goal was to build a small acute-care hospital with a trauma center in Midtown St. Louis to replace City Hospital No. 1 and then convert Phillips into a long-term-care center. But politics intervened. Conway agrees with many observers that his decision to close Phillips opened the door for his successor, then-Ald. Vince Schoemehl, of the 28th Ward. "There was absolutely no question about it," Conway recalls, adding that he has "no regrets" about the decision. He says that "political opportunists saw this as an opportunity and rallied people on this subject," an obvious reference to Schoemehl, who promised to reopen Homer G. Phillips and defeated Conway in the next mayoral election. But two bond issues failed to get the necessary votes, though they both received simple majorities, and a proposal for a sales-tax increase never made the ballot. Conway calls Schoemehl's tactic an example of what's "fair in love and war. Those things happen. I recognized that it could happen, and it did happen."

When Phillips closed, Thompson and other activists wouldn't let the issue fade. "Everywhere Jim Conway went during the closing of the hospital, he could look up and see Walle Amusa and me. I don't care where the town-hall meeting was, we were there raising the issue," says Thompson. But once Schoemehl was elected and it became clear Phillips wouldn't reopen, the subsequent closings of City Hospital No. 1 and Regional Hospital spurred a diminished level of controversy.

Thompson doesn't dispute that there were financial considerations to the decision to close Phillips, but she believes the racism that caused Homer G. Phillips to be necessary in the first place also put it to death prematurely. When it was seen as time to cut back on public hospitals, black hospitals went first. "This is what the private sector wanted Conway to do. It could have been anybody, he just stumbled into it," Thompson says of Conway's role. "People say (Rep. William) Clay didn't do what he could do. Other black politicians didn't do what they could do, or other people didn't do (enough). It wasn't the people. It wasn't the North St. Louis community, the people who needed and used that hospital. It was the health-care dynamics in this country moving from public to private."

When the producer of The Jewel, Mukulla Godwin, met alumni of Homer G. Phillips Hospital education and training programs where she worked in San Francisco as a nurse, she felt the story of "Homer G. epitomized the closures of all the public hospitals, particularly black- oriented hospitals," Thompson says. Godwin felt that story needed to be told and recruited director Chike C. Nwoffiah. Thompson hopes the film eventually will be broadcast on television, possibly PBS.

Despite the demise of Phillips — the building still stands — Thompson says the crisis in health care for the uninsured and underinsured continues. "It's very much like the unemployment situation. After a while of someone being unemployed, if they don't seek employment, they don't even record them as unemployed." People may not be chanting and marching, but high infant-mortality rates and lack of preventive care for the poor show the health crisis hasn't disappeared.

The Jewel premieres at 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd. Tickets are $20, with the proceeds benefiting a scholarship fund.. For more information, call Paula Rogers at 522-6733 or Zenobia Thompson at 381-3301.