Excitement and anticipation hung in the air at the Missouri History Museum on April 6. Hundreds of St. Louisans, donned in their Sunday’s best, gathered to take a trip back in time, to relive the golden years of one of St. Louis’ most prized African-American institutions: Homer G. Phillips Hospital.
The affair had the air of a family reunion. Hugs were exchanged as people waited in line, and friends old and new caught up on the details of their lives. Some inspected memorabilia from the Vashon Museum on display, while others walked the red carpet to the flash of cameras. After a more than a two-year labor of love, filmmakers premiered “The Color of Medicine” to an expectant audience.
Homer G. Phillips Hospital was not the first, nor the only, segregated hospital in St. Louis or in the United States. What set it apart was its size. Homer G. was perhaps the largest segregated hospital in the nation, rivaled only by the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Moreover, the facility trained a large number of African-American medical specialists, nurses, and allied health professionals.
Homer G. Phillips was a central institution in the history of American medicine. Beyond St. Louis, however, too few people understand the magnanimity of its legacy. “The Color of Medicine” aims to change that.
The film project began as an homage to a Homer G. alumnus, Dr. Earle U. Robinson Jr., initiated by his daughter, artist Rebecca Robinson, who co-produced the film. In the hands of filmmakers Joyce Fitzpatrick, a long-time family friend to the Robinsons, and Brian Shackelford the project blossomed, though the initial celebration of family love was never lost.
Dr. Robinson’s life in and around Homer G. Phillips Hospital was complimented by the lives and experiences of countless others, each with their own unique and powerful stories. As each of these figures, many well known in St. Louis, graced the silver screen, the audience murmured with recognition. Some beloved figures were applauded enthusiastically.
"Three years ago I could only imagine what the finish line would look like,” Robinson said. “When I walked into the museum and saw how many people were in line to see our film, I knew we were making history.”
“The Color of Medicine” captures so eloquently the profound emotional connection between Homer G., the medical professionals it trained, and black St. Louisans. The hospital was nestled in the tight-knit, historic Ville neighborhood, but the hospital itself was a tight-knit community. Not only did physicians practice, and nurses care for patients, Homer G. staff communed with one another by playing cards, eating together, and visiting area churches and bars.
By highlighting staff’s extra-medical bonding, “The Color of Medicine” demonstrates how Homer G. Phillips became more than a hospital. For many, it was home.
As the film played, emotions ran high among the audience. Some cried, as Homer G. nurses remembered how they never lost a patient in the sometimes hot, over-filled wards. Others laughed as Dr. Robinson discussed the “Great White Fathers,” those often-absent white medical department heads sent from Washington University School of Medicine.
The product of Jim Crow necessity, African Americans thrived in this segregated space. This is not to say that segregation policies were supported by those affiliated with Homer G. Rather, the conditions of segregation produced medical excellence and intense community formation. The story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, as shown in “The Color of Medicine,” is a testament to continued black resilience.
“When we started making this documentary, it became apparent to me that this was more than a documentary about black excellence in medicine from St. Louis,” said Joyce Fitzpatrick, executive producer and co-director.
“This film is about how a state-of-the-art hospital helped The Ville community survive and thrive despite racism, and we hope it will spark a movement to learn more about the best from the past, to help lead the best in our future.”
Efforts to reclaim the legacy of Homer G. Phillips Hospital emerged in the early 1960s with Dr. Howard P. Venable’s history published in the Journal of the National Medical Association. Amid growing calls to close Homer G. Phillips, and later the effort to reopen the formerly segregated hospital, St. Louisans made political use of the past, articulating the hospital’s importance and why it should remain open.
“The Color of Medicine” is not the first documentary featuring the hospital. That honor goes to “A Jewel in History: The Story of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored, St. Louis, Missouri,” which premiered in very similar fashion in 1999.
In this new era of Homer G.’s legacy, “The Color of Medicine” is accompanied by two book-length projects still in the works: a book commissioned by the Homer G. Phillips Nurse Alumni, authored by Dr. Will Ross and historian Candace O’Connor (both featured in the film), as well as this author’s dissertation, “A Source of Pride, A Vision of Progress,” which uses Homer G. Phillips Hospital as a case study to trace the broad history of segregation in the development of 20th century American medicine.
More than 750 individuals traveled to the Missouri History Museum to participate in the festivities. More than 100 were turned away because both auditorium and overflow rooms had reached capacity. The sheer demand has already prompted calls for another screening. These large numbers are a testament to how much Homer G. Phillips Hospital was loved, and how important it was in the lives of all who trained, worked and visited there.
This resurgence of interest in Homer G. Phillips Hospital will ensure that the legacy of the man and the institution will live on for years to come. Equally important, these works will emphasize African-American contributions to medicine, even when segregation forced them to the margins.
“The tears I shed while putting this film together were evidence to me that we were a part of something special,” said Brian Shackelford, co-producer and co-director. “We were not just telling a story, but reliving a moment in history. A moment many have never heard of, and a moment that may never happen again.”
For more information about “The Color of Medicine,” visit https://www.thecolorofmedicine.com.
Reprinted with permission from http://www.ezellesanford.com/blog/colorofmedicine.