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The Crumbling St. Agnes Hospital

At one point in time, St. Agnes Hospital was the only place in Raleigh for African-Americans to get healthcare. The former hospital holds a wealth of Raleigh history, but is also as the location of several sad events related to segregation and other artifacts of the Jim Crow era.

The hospital first opened its doors in 1896. Students of Saint Augustine’s College quarried and laid the stone in 1909 that makes up this towering building standing near the corner of Oakwood Avenue and State Street. There were two was a notable tragic event that took place here.

Medical care was segregated. Rex Hospital on the corner of Wade Avenue and St. Mary’s Street served the white population. It had better facilities and better health care than St. Agnes Hospital, the care center for blacks on the campus of Saint Augustine’s College. St. Agnes hospital also had a school of nursing. According to Mr. Hunter at least two tragic events occurred at this hospital because of segregation and the lack of resources at this hospital.

In the 50’s Charles Drew, the man who found the way to preserve and store blood plasma, fell asleep at the wheel while traveling through Raleigh on his way home to Washington, DC. In the resulting accident he was seriously injured. He was taken to St. Agnes Hospital. He needed blood plasma to save his life, but the technology he invented was not available at St. Agnes and he was refused admission to Rex because he was black. He died on April 1, 1950, as a result of this cruel irony.

The first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, also died at St. Agnes Hospital because they lacked the technology that could have saved his life. It was available at Rex Hospital.

Memories of Raleigh, Ligon Historians

Not only was St. Agnes a place for those to get medical care (whether they had money or not), but it also was a nursing school as well. Coupled with Leonard Medical School (the nation’s first four year medical college), Raleigh was leading the way for African-Americans to bring healthcare to those across the state that had little access to it.

The hospital was shut down in 1961, after a segregated area of Rex Hospital was opened around the same time. It has sat in disrepair ever since, now essentially only a shell of a building. There doesn’t appear to be one event that led to the utter collapse of the non-stone part of the structure, but it is so empty on the inside that it seems as though it burned in a fire.

There are plans to renovate the building to become the St. Agnes Health Disparities Institute. It’s estimated to be in the several millions of dollars to make this historic structure usable once again.

UPDATE / 07.24.08

Frank Stasio of The State Of Things on WUNC recently aired a story about the history of black doctors and the recent apology by the AMA for the long history of excluding African Americans from its ranks. In the episode, the legend of Dr. Charles Drew was addressed. It was exposed as a myth that he died as a result of segregation. Additionally, it doesn’t appear that he even died at St. Agnes, but at a hospital in Burlington.

Charles R. Drew was a black surgeon who pioneered techniques for preserving blood plasma that saved countless lives during World War II. Later he became medical director of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1950, while driving three other black doctors to a conference in Alabama, Drew fell asleep at the wheel. The car swerved and rolled over, breaking his neck and crushing his chest. According to legend, he desperately needed a blood transfusion, but doctors at a hospital in Burlington, North Carolina, refused to admit him, and he died.

This story is told in several black history books and has been repeated by Dick Gregory, among others. But it isn’t true. Morris spoke with Dr. John Ford, one of the passengers in Drew’s car. “We all received the very best of care,” Ford said. “The doctors started treating us immediately.”

Drew didn’t receive a transfusion because his injuries wouldn’t permit it. “He had a superior vena caval syndrome–blood was blocked getting back to his heart from his brain and upper extremities,” Ford said. “To give him a transfusion would have killed him sooner. Even the most heroic efforts couldn’t have saved him. I can truthfully say that no efforts were spared in the treatment of Dr. Drew, and, contrary to popular myth, the fact that he was a Negro did not in any way limit the care that was given to him.”

The Straight Dope

However, segregation and substandard equipment and care in the medical field lasted more than one hundred years. Thousands of untold stories exist of those who died because they didn’t have access to the best medical care available at the time simply because of the color of their skin. It is something that should still remain written for posterity to remind us all of the effects of discrimination and racism.

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