Part 3: The Struggle for Adequate Healthcare for African Americans in Indianapolis-1906-1925

September 28, 2020 12:11 PM | Sarah Halter (Administrator)

by Norma Erickson

When the Lincoln Hospital opened in December of 1909, the African American doctors of Indianapolis could no longer continue with the state of medical practice in Indianapolis. Shut out of the hospitals of the city, they could not continue to care for their patients who required hospitalizations, a situation that led to disastrous outcomes for some Black patients. Sometimes the disconnect that occurred when the patient was moved from home to hospital left a very sick person vulnerable to mistakes.

One such case happened in March of 1905 when Thomas Jones, a seriously ill African American man, was denied an examination at the City Hospital. He had recently been seen by two Black physicians; one wrote an order for him to be admitted to City Hospital. A carriage was called, and when the driver arrived at the hospital, the intern on duty looked at the man in the carriage, saw blood on the front of his clothes and immediately determined that he had tuberculosis. The doctor did not take Jones’s temperature nor remove the patient to an examination room, because the clerk on duty would not help him. Tuberculosis cases were prohibited from City Hospital, so the intern told Willis to take him to the county poor house. He did so, and thirty minutes later Thomas Jones died. Knowing that City Hospital would not accept TB patients, the physician would not have requested he be admitted there, nor would the nurse who saw him in his home had called for the carriage to take him to there. The nurse had collected a sputum sample at his home before he was removed. When tested later, the sample was negative for TB. The Black community was outraged by this and reporting on the case appeared in both the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News for three weeks.

During this era, the role of hospitals was undergoing great changes. No longer a place merely for the poor to receive treatment, they underwent modernization that allowed life-saving surgeries to take place. But a Black physician did not have access to those, even in public tax-supported institutions like City Hospital. Black patients who would have liked to receive treatment in a hospital rather than homecare were put off by the uncomfortable environment of all-white medical and nursing staffs.  Between the loss of revenue and prestige as a surgeon, and the patients’ low confidence in the system, it was clearly time for a new approach by the African American community. If the segregationist rules did not change, then it was time for a public hospital for African Americans. The only way to get it was to start their own.

Like Ward’s Sanitarium, the Lincoln Hospital also launched a nurse training program that attracted students from around the state. It also included a free dispensary to treat the poor, just like the public hospital. Women’s clubs stepped up to gather funds and donate goods. Two prominent white men, a business owner and a politician donated substantially to the effort to get the project off to a start. The physicians published a first annual report with glowing successful cases and also revealed the cases they lost. Five years later, the hospital closed.

The reason most often cited was the lack of funding. That certainly could be true, but could there be another reason? Could it be that the Black doctors of Lincoln Hospital allowed it to end because it was time to make a push to be installed at the City Hospital? For five years, they managed a facility and demonstrated their abilities to successfully perform operations. One of their own would run for city council and win that year, dangling the hope of making changes at City Hospital almost within their reach. War had begun in Europe, bringing a possibility that young Blacks would enter military service soon—another way to prove the mettle of the Race.

But the entrance of physicians into Indianapolis’ public hospital would not happen for another thirty years and access to both adequate and trusted healthcare would continue to deteriorate.

Next month: The Sisters of Charity Hospital


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