Few things mar the history of American cities as severely as the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and discrimination–and Louisville is no exception. Among many other injustices, Black people living in Jim Crow Louisville were overtly discriminated against even in health care.
In 1899, only two hospitals in Louisville would treat Black patients: Louisville General Hospital and Waverly Sanatorium, but Waverly Sanatorium only treated tuberculosis patients. Louisville General kept space for impoverished patients, including Black ones, but was segregated. It was not until 1951 that Black physicians could practice at any hospital in Louisville
With almost nowhere to go because of the color of their skin, a group of Black doctors and community members got together and decided to solve the problem. They launched Louisville’s first all-Black hospital: a place where Black physicians could practice and Black patients could receive treatment, regardless of whether they could pay or not.
This ambitious project was undertaken by the Red Cross Association, which is separate from the American Red Cross. This organization set out “to equip and maintain a sanitarium for the purpose of treating the sick of the race under the observation of their own people and to operate in connection with such an institution a training school where women of the race can be educated as professional nurses.”
The Red Cross Hospital found its first home on the corner of Sixth and Walnut in a two-story, A-frame home. Back then, West Walnut Street was actually a hub for the Black community. Dr. W.T. Merchant and Dr. Ellis D. Wheedbee founded the hospital and were among the first to practice there. Dr. R.B. Scott is listed as a founder by some sources but not by others; regardless, he clearly played an instrumental role in the hospital’s early years. Although not mentioned in other sources, Dr. Solomon Stone, Dr. E. S. Porter, and Dr. William H. Perry are listed as founders by the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database. Lizzie Green Bates, a notable activist and contributor to the hospital, is also credited as a founder by separate sources.
Accordingly, the hospital began its history with at least six Black physicians on staff- an impressive number for a time when the Black community in Louisville faced a shortage of physicians.
During those early years, the hospital was overseen by a committee consisting entirely of women. Called the Women’s Board of Manager, it initially consisted of Mrs. Bertha Wheedbee—also the first Black woman to become a police officer in Louisville–Mrs. R.B. Scott, Mrs. W.T. Merchant (these three were married to physicians at the hospital), and Mrs. Ophelia Matthews. The board was chaired by the aforementioned Lizzie Green Bates.
1905 saw the hospital move to a new, larger location at 1436 S. Shelby St. where it stayed for the remainder of its history. Originally a single two-story building, this new location was expanded by a number of additions over the years. In its first years, funds for the hospital, its additions, and its move-in were raised largely by the community. Fundraisers for the hospital included “fish suppers, raffles, and teas” sponsored by congregations and other community-minded organizations.
Eventually, the hospital drew much of its funding from the donations of Mrs. Hattie B. Speed. Speed was introduced to the hospital by her former traveling companion who had become a nurse there. This nurse was likely Mary E. Merrit, who worked at the hospital in various capacities from 1914 until 1945. After graduating from Berea College, Merritt worked as a nurse in Washington D.C. before landing a job at Red Cross. The first Black registered nurse in Kentucky, Merritt served as the hospital’s head nurse and oversaw its nursing school. The nursing school, which existed by 1914, is one example of the hospital’s rapid growth in the 1910s and ‘20s. The hospital was able to expand with several brick buildings during this time period.
Unfortunately, the nursing school closed in 1937, losing its accreditation as the hospital struggled to find funding.
However, the shortage of funds didn’t last long for Red Cross Hospital, as the 1940s were a time of impressive growth and a number of firsts. To kick off the 1940s, the hospital hired its first house physician, Dr. William B. Settle. Then in 1941, Dr. J.B. Bell was hired as the first medical director.
Dr. Bell worked with Louisville’s Director of Health, Dr. Hugh Level, to raise $21,000 (around $337,000 in today’s money) for the improvement of the hospital. Among other things, this money was used to hire new staff to work with their laboratory and x-ray technology. Additionally, new funding enabled the hospital to increase its number of beds by sixteen and update its equipment in the 1940s.
The hospital was also able to open a cancer clinic in the 1940s, and in 1948, the nursing school reopened.
The staff grew alongside the facilities in the 1940s. The hospital brought on a new wave of staff including a dietician, a bookkeeper, a records clerk, and a new board of trustees. Undoubtedly, this new wave of staff was a major reason for the hospital’s ability to boom like it did that decade.
The 1950s continued the growth of the 1940s. In 1951, the Heyburn Building was added. This $650,000 (around $16.7 million in today’s money) addition upped the hospital’s bed number to 100. It also greatly extended the hospital’s capabilities, allowing them to add a dental clinic, new operating rooms, new nurseries, a new lab, and more.
The 1950s, however, were also the beginning of the end for Red Cross Hospital. Fortunately, Black physicians were admitted to practice at other hospitals in Louisville in 1951, beginning with Jewish Hospital. This was a major step toward equality, not only were Black physicians now recognized for the quality of their work, but they also had more job opportunities in Louisville. This had a snowball effect with the late 1950s seeing a significant movement for the end of medical segregation.
Even with integration increasing competition for physicians and patients, the hospital continued to succeed through the 1960s. It offered nearly everything from dentistry to obstetrics to surgery, and its staff included whites. In fact, in 1964, 271 babies were delivered at Red Cross Hospital. The continued growth of the hospital is evidenced by the fact that its patient load increased by 150% from 1945 to 1965.
The 1970s were the last decade Red Cross Hospital operated. In 1972, the hospital renamed itself Community Hospital in an attempt to stay afloat. However, the hospital would eventually close its doors in 1976, as it struggled to pay off nearly $50,000 in debt.
The eventual close of the hospital was a tragic moment in Louisville’s history. When the Red Cross Hospital was operating, it was a true community institution. The institution undoubtedly provided quality care to a community in need. Unfortunately, with fewer avenues of funding and more options for Black people in Louisville, the Red Cross Hospital, like many hospitals at the time, was put out of business as it struggled to compete with larger hospitals with more technology and equipment.
Founded in 1899 as an answer to the challenge of Black healthcare during Jim Crow, Red Cross Hospital’s success and expansion was a testament to the excellence of the physicians, nurses, administrators, technicians, and all others who worked there. While it was open and operating, the Red Cross Hospital served as undeniable evidence of the perseverance and strength of Louisville’s Black community, and for that, it deserves to be remembered.