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Published February 28, 2015

St. Agnes Hospital: Ruins Of Segregation In Raleigh

I’ve driven past the abandoned building near Historic Oakwood Cemetery and St. Augustine University many times, always fascinated by its stone walls, the only thing left of the roofless three-story structure. I can see straight to the other side, through wide open holes where windows used to be.

I’ve always wondered why the entire building hadn’t been demolished. The fact that the shell remained standing made me certain there was a significant history associated with it.

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America has a long history of racial segregation, and remnants of that history can still be seen in Raleigh. Perhaps you’ve seen photos of “Whites Only” signs on restrooms, drinking fountains and diners. In modern society, it seems surreal that those same lines were also drawn when it came to medical care. That’s a topic I hadn’t pondered until I started doing research on that abandoned site, which I now know was St. Agnes Hospital.

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

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After learning more of St. Agnes Hospital’s story, I was shocked by the role it played in the lives of the citizens all across the South. It was one of the first hospitals for Blacks in America, opening its doors on Sunday, October 18, 1896.

According to African American Registry:

  • Its beginnings were primitive, with a single cold water faucet in the kitchen and a wood stove to heat water and sterilize equipment. During its first six months of operation, the hospital cared for 17 inpatients and 35 outpatients. An additional 223 people received St. Agnes’s medical and nursing care in their homes. Students would clean, cook, and make beds during the six-month trial period. If they passed and wanted a career in nursing, they entered the hospital as student nurses. Most of their education was on-the-job training with the matron, staff nurses, and physicians on wards, in the operating room and on home visits. They also heard lectures, which focused on the diseases and conditions of the current patient population.

In 1898, St. Agnes graduated its first two nurses after a training program of 18 months.

By the 1920s, Raleigh’s own St. Agnes Hospital was regarded as the best-equipped medical facility for blacks between Washington, D.C and New Orleans, LA. It also served as a training facility for doctors and nurses.

While the hospital served the black community, it was founded by whites, and equally notable, by women. The lay founder was Sara Hunter, wife of the principal of St. Augustine’s College.

Because of its mission and the quality of care delivered, it received city-wide support, as evidenced by the establishment of a St. Agnes Hospital Day, coinciding with the Feast Day of its patron saint. During the event, churches, stores, and citizens donated money and goods. In 1922, during a campaign to raise $40,000 for the hospital, 3 white-robed members of the Raleigh Ku Klux Klan walked into the kick-off meeting and gave five 10 dollar bills, as a first payment on their $100 contribution.

The donation was accompanied by a letter that, in part, read:

  • Believing in the sincerity of the movement and being in sympathy with the furthering of such a worthy and beneficent cause, the klan hereby declares its interest in the success and future welfare of St. Agnes Hospital for colored people and hereby makes known its desire and willingness to lend support.
RELATED: Oakwood Cemetery’s Origins: Digging Up The Past.

Dr. Mary V. Glenton, one of the hospital’s early resident physicians and superintendents gave this documented account:

  • An old hack driver came one day to take a patient to the station who was well enough to go home, she was broken hearted at leaving her Hospital friends. The driver looked at her for a minute, and said, ‘I brings these wimmen, and they cries all the way ’cause they has to come, and I takes them away, and they cries all the way ’cause they has to go home.’

While investigating the story of this important piece of Raleigh history, I had the good fortune to speak with retired St. Augustine Professor Irene Clark who has spent significant time uncovering the hospital’s past. When asked to name the one thing she would want people to know about St. Agnes Hospital, she replied, “how amazing it was that they did so much with so little.”

Alas, it seems that the “so little” was the ultimate demise of the hospital. In 1946, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, died at St. Agnes Hospital after sustaining injuries when the roadster he was driving careened off the road.

The hospital lacked the technology that could have saved his life. The hospital closed its doors for good in 1961, the same year WakeMed opened, just a few blocks away.

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The site bears a Raleigh Historic Property designation, but being on that registry now puts some constraints on what can be done with property. The Department of the Interior, as well as other local groups and St. Augustine University alumni are looking for ways to restore the building as a medical school and museum.

RELATED: Death Isn’t Orderly: Nature Takes Oberlin Cemetery.

Now each time I drive by that site, I see it differently. It’s no longer an abandoned building, but a shining monument to what can be accomplished when hearts, hands, and minds combine to care for their fellow man.

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  • Michael Palko

    Michael

  • Instructional designer, Photographer-in-Residence at Historic Oakwood Cemetery, and social learning evangelist. Oh, digital storyteller, too. I take pictures. Lots of them. Find me on Instagram: mpalko. All my articles.

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