Through the years, segregation of African Americans was as endemic in health care as it was in other areas of American society.
In the pre-Civil War South, slaves may have had plantation-based clinics, but they had no hospital care until 1832 when the Georgia Infirmary opened, the first white-run hospital for treating “aged or afflicted Africans.” In the North, many hospitals did not admit black patients, or confined them to “coloreds-only” wings. Even fewer would train or grant privileges to black doctors or train black nurses.
In the beginning, it seemed, African Americans were going to have to do it on their own.
Respected black physician Daniel Hale Williams was among the first. In 1891, the Chicago heart surgeon helped to rally black ministers, businessmen and physicians — along with some prominent white donors — to establish the nation’s first black-owned hospital and nursing school on the city’s South Side.
The hospital opened in a three-story house as a 12-bed hospital and nursing school “for the gratuitous treatment of the medical and surgical diseases of the sick poor,” stated the 1891 charter for the Provident Hospital and Training School Association.
“Some members of the black community accused [Williams] of perpetuating segregation,” writes Vanessa Worthington Gamble, M.D., author of Making a Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920–1945. “One minister went so far as to curse the building and pray that it would burn to the ground. Williams was able to overcome such criticism because of the wide biracial support that the hospital received.
“Furthermore, the founder perceived the hospital not as an exclusively black enterprise, but as an interracial one that would not practice racial discrimination with regard to staff privileges, nurse training school applicants and the admission of patients.”
Williams helped to put Provident on the map for more than its nondiscriminatory mission. In 1893, he performed the nation’s first open-heart surgery at the hospital. The patient survived and was discharged 51 days later.
Provident itself would go on to move into larger facilities and in 1933 formed a teaching alliance with the University of Chicago. Provident Hospital of Cook County is now part of the Cook County Health & Hospitals System.