New Documentary Reinforces the Powerful History of St. Louis’ Homer G. Phillips Hospital
Homer G. Phillips was a man, a hospital and a seed.
The newly released documentary “The Color of Medicine: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital” explores the role of the historic St. Louis hospital he founded as one of the first institutions in the country to treat African Americans in a safe, hygienic and sterile environment. The hospital eventually boasted the largest number of black doctors and nurses in the world.
Its opening in 1937 meant that African Americans in the St. Louis community were no longer without medical care—or forced to resort to illegal and dangerous methods of treatment. Homer G. Phillips Hospital was of utmost importance until its dramatic closure in 1979, which incited riots in its neighborhood of The Ville.
During that era, The Ville was a small, self-sustaining black neighborhood located in St. Louis City. It was full of thriving businesses where people worked in jobs ranging from service to professional. The needs and services of everyday life were within the community. The one exception to that was access to hospitalization and healthcare needs. Deep segregationist laws in St. Louis—and in our nation—prevented black people from accessing health care services in the city’s only public hospital. The need created the seed.
When the opportunity to screen and write my thoughts about “The Color of Medicine” arose, I initially thought that someone else might be better suited for the task because I was very young when the hospital closed and I don’t know much about it. But I remembered a promise to myself: to give opportunities a chance. So I watched. And I became engrossed—and then saw my connections to this history.
The hospital’s founder, attorney Homer G. Phillips, had varied business and social justice interests. One of these was health. He advocated for a bond issue to build a community-controlled African American hospital to be located in The Ville. An autonomous public hospital. I had to let that sink in for a moment because we as a nation continue to debate and fight our way towards universal affordable and accessible health care, and many of our hospitals are for-profit businesses where Big Pharma steers the conversation.
Homer G. Phillips Hospital was a teaching institution built to serve and treat the black community. It was a mothership that attracted and nurtured future doctors, nurses, medical technologists, x-ray technicians and medical records librarians. Because it existed, people came in droves from near and far. There was no shortage of talent—and the expectation of excellence was infused into the curriculum as well as into the hearts and minds of all who studied and practiced there. And it had to succeed because everyone was watching “negro hospitalization.”
Homer G. Phillips Hospital thrived because of its pursuit and expectation of excellence. The bounty that came out of that hospital spread beyond its walls. Some people stayed in St. Louis, strengthening the local community, and others took their skill and grew it in other parts of the country and world.
As I watched the film, I saw the story of my childhood pediatrician, Dr. Helen Nash, unfold before my eyes. I remember her office on North Grand, watching my brother wrestle with nurses on shot day, and people selling beans pies on nearby corners. My mom always told me the story of how we as a family came to drink 2 percent or skim milk in our household. At one of our regular checkups, Dr. Nash walked into the treatment room, took one look at my chunky body and with astonished eyes asked, “What are you feeding that baby?” Whole milk was the culprit of my pediatric weight gain and was never again in our grocery cart. Her sage and holistic look at our family’s wellness became one of the foundations that I know about my health: My body does better without dairy.
When we had to go to Children’s Hospital for emergency room visits and people saw that Dr. Nash was our pediatrician, the sense of urgency in our care seemed to take on a different meaning. She demanded excellence and equal treatment of her patients. Growing up, saying that Dr. Helen Nash was your pediatrician evoked a sense of pride and gave people a way to orient you, kind of how St. Louisans always ask “What high school did you go to?” (Metro.)
As I continued watching the documentary, presented by Vision Films and directed by Joyce Marie Fitzpatrick and Brian Shackelford, I saw remnants of my life thread together. The firsthand accounts witnessing the controversial history and the turbulent times brought back powerful memories. For example, for most of my life, local activist Ron Gregory—who is featured in the film—was my neighbor. His family lived a couple of houses up from me.
At one point, I had to pause the screening and back it up while catching my breath, because I thought I saw my grandfather in a photograph standing among graduates of Meharry Medical College, a historically black college and university in Nashville, Tennessee. It wasn’t him. But it reinforced the underlying message of this movie: I was connected in this history, as we all are.
Homer G. Phillips Hospital was deliberately closed in 1979 by the St. Louis City government. Taking away the hospital helped to destroy a community and sow seeds of anger and mistrust in the black community. The hurt this fueled is still present. Wounds that don’t heal can continue. We saw that in the 2014 Ferguson riots.
In watching and listening to the stories of those who passed through the halls of Homer G. Phillips Hospital and of those in community support roles, I was reminded of my grandfather’s expectation of me to do great things. I saw my mother’s passion in the field of African American studies. I saw myself and my personal interests in health, social justice, economics and storytelling.
The seed of Homer G. Phillips Hospital grew beyond the brick and mortar. It continues to live through people—and that is infinite.
“The Color of Medicine: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital” is available on demand digitally for $4.99 to $9.99 from platforms including iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Xbox, Amazon and FandangoNow, as well as cable affiliates. It can be purchased on DVD for $12.99 online at all major retailers.
Images courtesy of Vision Films.