Zenobia Thompson

In 1977, Zenobia Thompson was doing exactly what she loved to do – providing care to her community as a head nurse at Homer G. Phillips Hospital.

That year, she had just returned to work at her alma mater, after spending 10 years at Barnes Hospital in labor and delivery. Yet she soon learned that the threats of St. Louis city leaders closing the iconic black teaching hospital was creating a cloud over the dedicated staff.

From 1937 until 1955, Homer G. Phillips was the only hospital for African Americans in St. Louis. It continued to serve largely the African-American community after desegregation, and it was the first teaching hospital west of the Mississippi River for black students. By 1961, Homer G. Phillips had trained the largest number of black doctors and nurses in the world.

One day, Thompson’s colleague asked her to come to a meeting for those involved in the fight to keep the hospital open. Thompson told her friend that she didn’t think she could do much to help, but she attended the meeting anyway. There, representatives from progressive organizations, such as the Organization for Black Struggle and the Coalition for Black Trade Unionists, were speaking about the movement and the meaning of repression.

“My words were, ‘Where have you all been?’”

She joined the movement that day and ended up becoming a leader in the effort to save the hospital.

“Once I became involved with the struggle to save Homer G. Phillips Hospital, that was the gateway to getting involved in the struggle for equality, the struggle against discrimination, the struggle against racism,” Thompson said. “It made me aware of what was going on around me, and what can be done. You don’t have to roll over. Don’t agonize, organize.”

Despite her efforts, the hospital closed in 1979, but it was far from her last leadership role in the struggle.

Thompson graduated from the Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing in 1965 and went on to serve 54 years as a nurse. Health care has always been the center of her life, she said. Although she is retired, she still has a few “patient-friends” that she visits and helps navigate through the medical system. 

“I always say that nursing is my passion, but activism is my calling,” Thompson said.

Reflecting on all these years of service and activism, she has been able to rationalize those two parts of her in this way. People don’t willingly enter a life where they are constantly beaten up, humiliated, and putting their financial security in jeopardy.

“When I put all that together, I said activism must be a calling because I don’t think someone would raise their hand and say ‘I want that to happen to me,’” Thompson said.

Thompson’s fearless activism and lifelong service to the community are among the reasons she will receive the Lifetime Achiever in Health Care Award at the 19th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Friday, April 26, at the Frontenac Hilton.

She is a recipient of the Martin Luther King Award for leading the struggle to save Homer G. Phillips Hospital. She has serves as a board member of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and a founding board member for the Workers Educational Society, which educates young people in building progressive coalitions, including the campaign to raise the minimum wage. She also participates with Jobs with Justice, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the Organization for Black Struggle.

Thompson also served as the co-chair of the St. Louis Free Angela Davis Committee. She is a veteran of dozens of electoral campaigns focused on electing African-American trade unionists to local and state-wide office.

And through all her activism, her late daughter Dumeha, who was born in 1971, was always at her side at rallies and meetings, Zenobia said.

“She’s a longtimer, and she’s been on the right side,” said activist Percy Green. “She’s been superb in her profession. As it relates to the community, she has always been a person you can count on.”

Green describes Thompson as “noble, competent and trustworthy,” and someone who works behind the scenes “filling the void.” Yet she is also capable of being a spokesperson, he said.

“Early on, I was convinced that universal health care for everyone was the way to go and that health care was a human right,” Thompson said. “And for years I have been struggling, going to meetings, conventions, workshops, demonstrating, organizations to promote the concept of health care as a human right and universal health care.” 

Tickets for the 19th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Friday, April 26 at the Frontenac Hilton are $750 per table for VIP/Corporate seating and $50 each/$500 table for Individual seating. To order tickets, call 314-533-8000 or visit www.stlamerican.com.

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