by Norma Erickson
Imagine for a moment that you are in desperate need of a complicated surgical operation, one that cannot be performed as an outpatient. It is such a serious surgery that you could die, if it is not successful. Some of the success of the operation depends on good nursing care during your recovery.
Now imagine you are in Indianapolis in 1904 and you are a Black patient in need of surgery in a hospital at a time when your personal physician, also Black, is not allowed to practice in City Hospital (now Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital)—the only hospital that will admit you. You don’t know how your white surgeon feels about operating on an African American. You also don’t know—when you are finally anesthetized—if an intern will be holding the scalpel that will be slicing into your abdomen, practicing his newly-learned surgical skills. The nurse who will be taking care of you will also be white and may not like going to the dank and dark basement Colored Ward to care for you.
Is it little wonder that you waited so long to see a doctor and relied on home remedies or even resorted to magical charms to evade the possibility of mistreatment that folks in your neighborhood warned you about? They described the hospital as a “terror” many times. Your Black doctor may not know the feelings of the white doctor, because the normal way of getting to know other physicians, the local medical society, does not allow him membership.
This scenario shows just one of the reasons the African American community experienced a disparity in healthcare in the early twentieth century. But what could be done? Racial segregation was a fact of life, and it appeared that nothing would change. To gain some control over the situation, there had to be healthcare that the community could trust, and there had to be adequate places to deliver such care. For this reason, individuals and groups decided to “yield to the inevitable” and began an effort in the city to alleviate this problem by establishing hospitals and private sanitariums to provide good medical care and nurse training programs to uplift the Black citizens of Indianapolis both economically and socially.
Subsequent blog posts will tell a bit of the story of three such institutions that existed in Indianapolis between the years 1906 and 1925—Ward’s Sanitarium, Lincoln Hospital, and the Sisters of Charity Hospital. As you read these stories, keep in mind that although they disappeared in the first quarter of the century, the problems they sought to cure did not, reaching even until the present day.