On August 19, 1979, I woke up at my home across the street from Homer G. Phillips Hospital to helicopters flying overhead. To my surprise, the St. Louis Police Department had surrounded the hospital. The streets of The Ville neighborhood were barricaded for four blocks in every direction. Physicians, nurses and other Homer G. employees like myself were not able to work that day.
It felt like the city had enacted martial law just to get 50 patients out of Homer G. and transferred to City Hospital. As I stared out my window in shock, I heard a knock at my door. A news reporter had scurried over to ask if he could use our telephone to call in his report on the closing of Homer G. Phillips Hospital.
I am a lifetime resident of The Ville neighborhood. I have lived, played, studied, worshiped, worked, and been associated with every major institution in The Ville. I was born at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1949 and worked there for nearly 10 years after graduating from Sumner High School.
I have fond memories of my friendships at Homer G. I used to babysit for Dr. Mary Anne Tillman, and, when my daughter died of breast cancer (long after the hospital closed), she was one of the first to console me in my time of sorrow. These are the kinds of memories that make the Homer G. Phillips name mean so much to so many people.
I recently learned about the “new Homer G. Phillips Hospital,” and it shook me to my core. It felt like salt on an open wound. Here I stand cemented in my neighborhood, determined to restore pride and stability in my community — only to see a stranger co-opt our legacy in an attempt to placate the black community.
To many of us, the name and the grounds of Homer G. are sacred. We demonstrated all year to keep that hospital open. We held a sit-in at Mayor Jim Conway's office and were then carried out on stretchers, herded into the city jail like cattle. But we were willing to sacrifice our livelihood to save a place that was more than just a hospital to us.
Nonetheless, our pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears. Like the last Homer G. patients, our jobs were transferred to City Hospital — one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. When the hospital closed, my life and my community changed forever.
In 2017, my neighbor Thomasina Clarke and I founded 4theVille. After witnessing our neighborhood deteriorate for two generations while its history was used by others to prosper and transform distant communities, we thought it was time to speak up. We are based in The Ville neighborhood where the real Homer G. Phillips still exists, and we intend to remain here along with our proud history. Although the hospital is no longer serving its original purpose, it still stands as a legacy to its founder, the people who worked and trained there, and the community it serves.
Paul McKee Jr. using the Homer G. name for his clinic is just another example of developers exploiting African Americans, our culture, and our institutions for their own commercial gains. It is one of those silent forms of institutional racism that planners, politicians and developers have used to cripple and devalue historic black communities. It distorts what this legacy means to the African Americans who trained and worked at Homer G, who lived in The Ville and nurtured community around that institution.
Homer G. Phillips, Esq. gave his life so that African Americans could have equitable healthcare in their own community. McKee’s decision insults his legacy.
I am now 70 years old and still living in The Ville. I’ve done my best to be a model citizen. Many of us in the neighborhood followed the so-called playbook of The American Dream. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that we have gotten no return on our lifelong investment and sacrifice except the pilfering of our most endeared institutions for the benefit of others.
What we get are brands like “MurderVille” and “Hayden’s Triangle.” Our blocks are plagued with vacancy and abandonment. Our home investments have vanished. That home I welcomed the reporter into the day that Homer G. was closed — my childhood home — was lost to predatory lending and is now owned by the City of St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). All these circumstances are results of our community being stripped of its dignity. McKee’s extraction of the Homer G. Phillips legacy is more of the same.
To reconcile the disappearance of The Ville’s legacy from the region’s collective memory, 4theVille began offering walking tours of “The Heart of The Ville.” We take tourists by the notable institutions in the neighborhood as we narrate the story of a resilient African-American community that, despite institutional racism, produced a history that has impacted the world. The tour often ends in the lobby of Homer G. Phillips, where senior citizen residents eagerly share their joy of being able to live in the same place they were born. Is McKee willing to take that away from them?
McKee’s decision also disparages the legacy of Captain Wendell O. Pruitt, who posthumously became the namesake of the most notorious housing project in America, ironically constructed on the same soil as McKee’s three-bed hospital. Pruitt was an honorable man, a World War II veteran and Tuskegee Airman whose legacy was tarnished by the government’s mismanagement of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects. Now his name will be completely erased by developers and politicians.
Pruitt is deserving of a more respectable legacy. So, if McKee’s gesture is really an act of respect for the black community, why not honor his name? Why not name it Wendell O. Pruitt Hospital?
Better yet, why not ask the community for their input?
McKee must not continue the behavior of destroying one community to create another one. The legacy of Homer G. Phillips deserves to remain where it stands. McKee must honor this request and rename his three-bed hospital.
Co-written by the 4theVille Team.