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Kansas City’s Douglass Hospital: The First Black Hospital West of the Mississippi River

February 23rd, 2022

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) founded the annual February celebration of Black History in 1926 and has identified “Black Health and Wellness” as the theme for 2022.

Until the 1960s, Black physicians and nurses in the United States were denied access to most hospitals, while Black patients were either not accepted or relegated to inferior, segregated areas in hospitals. From Spencer’s African American Experience Collections, I selected images and a few printed items to highlight the Greater Kansas City Black Community’s pioneering effort to defy “Jim Crow” practices by establishing the nation’s first Black community owned and operated hospital west of the Mississippi. It was also the region’s first modern hospital to welcome all patients equally regardless of their “race.”  

Black-and-white photograph of a two-story brick building with a front porch and a "Douglass Hospital" sign. Five women, four dressed as nurses, stand outside.
Douglass Hospital, circa 1900. It was located at 312 Washington Boulevard in Kansas City, Kansas, from 1898 to 1924. S.H. Thompson Family Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 510. Click image to enlarge.

Organized by Black physicians and community leaders from Kansas City, Kansas (KCK), and Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO), Douglass Hospital opened its doors in December 1898 under the temporary supervision of Nurse Miss A.D. Richardson from Provident Hospital in Chicago. The building previously housed a white Protestant hospital. Fully equipped, it provided ten beds for patients on the first floor and a nurse’s quarters on the second floor. In 1901, the hospital’s first Nursing School exercise convened at First AME Church in KCK and its Nurse Commencement at the Second Baptist Church in KCMO.             

Black-and-white photograph of Dr. Thompson standing. He is wearing a dark overcoat.
Dr. Solomon H. Thompson (1870-1950). From The Afro-American Community in Kansas City, Kansas: A History (1982). Call Number: RH D8708. Click image to enlarge.

Dr. Thompson, the leading founder of Douglass Hospital, was the eldest of thirteen children born to Mr. Jasper and Mrs. Dolly Thompson in West Virginia. He earned his undergraduate degree from Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and a medical degree from Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C.  After an internship in surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital in D.C., he moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where he developed a thriving private practice. He also served as the head of Douglass until he retired from practicing medicine in 1946.  

Sepia-toned photograph of men standing around a table. They are using medical implements to examine a human cadaver.
Dr. Thompson’s student years at Howard University Medical School, 1880s. S.H. Thompson Family Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 510. Click image to enlarge.
Sepia-toned headshot photograph of an older man in a suit.
Isaac Franklin Bradley (1862-1938). S.H. Thompson Family Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 510. Click image to enlarge.

A native of Saline County in Missouri, Mr. Isaac Franklin Bradley was a co-founder and devoted community advocate for Douglass Hospital. After earning a bachelor of law degree from the University of Kansas in 1877, he moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where he established an active private law practice and served as the City’s Justice of the Peace (1889-1891) and the First Assistant County Attorney (1894-1898). Dedicated to Black collective advancement, Mr. Bradley engaged in a variety of community business enterprises, served as a charter member of the 1905 Niagara Movement (the predecessor of the NAACP), co-founded KCK’s Negro Civic League, and owned/edited the Wyandotte Echo newspaper.

(Douglass Hospital co-founder Dr. Thomas C. Unthank (1866-1932) in Kansas City, Missouri, also pioneered the development of General Hospital #2 in Kansas City, Missouri, the first Black Municipal Hospital in the United States in 1911.)   

Once up and running, Douglass Hospital sparked the development of a nearby Black community owned and operated “medical” building.

Black-and-white photograph of a two-story brick building with two second-floor bay windows. A man stands with a horse and buggy in front.
Sepia-toned photograph of two men, an employee and a customer, standing at glass display cases items. Full bookcases line the walls. On the left is a long counter with stools.
The exterior (top) and interior (bottom) of the Wyandotte Drug Store, located at 1512 North 5th Boulevard in Kansas City, Kansas, around 1900. It was the city’s first Black owned drug store, and it was also operated by a Black pharmacist. S.H. Thompson Family Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 510. Click images to enlarge.
Sepia-toned photograph of a wooden desk and office chair. There are miscellaneous papers and stacks of books.
Dr. Thompson’s study in his private practice office, undated. S.H. Thompson Family Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 510. Click image to enlarge.
Black-and-white pamphlet cover with a sketch of Booker T. Washington, a decorative border, and details (where, when, etc.) about the event.
Douglass Hospital’s Booker T. Washington lecture in Kansas City, Missouri, May 4, 1906. A copy of this booklet was donated by Mr. Chester Owens, historian and collector. Chester Owens Collection. Call Number: RH MS 1549 (item not yet cataloged). Click image to enlarge.

More than 6,000 people, Black and white, attended this Douglass Hospital fundraising event in Kansas City, Missouri’s Convention Hall to hear Booker T. Washington’s lecture. A year earlier, the hospital’s volunteer governing board and medical staff decided to move under the administration of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Fifth District led by Bishop Abraham Grant in response to the increasing costs and administrative needs required to maintain a modern hospital.  After this event, Douglass paid its debts and enlarged its facility, as seen in this photo:

Black-and-white photograph of an enlarged two-story brick building with a front porch and a "Douglass Hospital" sign. A group of nurses stands in front.
Douglass Hospital renovated, 1911. Josephine M. White Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 1099. Click image to enlarge.

By 1915, the Douglass Hospital Nurse Training School was incorporated into the curriculum at Western University in Kansas City, Kansas.

A page cut from a book with a decorative blue border, two black-and-white headshot photographs at the top, and information about the training school.
A page in the 1927 Westernite yearbook showing Mildred E. Brown and Rose Alexander, Douglass Hospital Training School graduates, Western University, Kansas City, Kansas. Douglass Hospital Training School Records. Call Number: RH MS P681.
Black-and-white photograph of a substantial house with wood siding and an expansive wrap-around porch.
The second Douglass Hospital (1924-1945), located at 336 Quindaro Boulevard in Kansas City, Kansas. S.H. Thompson Family Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 510. Click image to enlarge.

To meet the hospital’s increasing number of patients, the Greater Kansas Black community organized a fundraising drive that led to the purchase of the former Edgerton Estate. The two-story, fifteen-room residence enabled the hospital to increase its capacity to twenty-five patients with two more small buildings for meetings and events. Douglass Hospital convened public programs during annual Negro Health Week in April and sponsored free clinics for ear, nose, and throat exams and sessions on medical care for babies. 

Douglass Hospital nurses delivered the ongoing care for patients, organized outreach activities, and managed the hospital’s ongoing need for more medical supplies.

Black-and-white photograph of two students in nursing uniforms next to a sign that reads "Douglass Hospital and Nurses Training Program."
Student Nurses Ethel Edmond and Katherine Hicks, 1930s. Papers of Viola L. (Tyree) Lisben. Call Number: RH MS-P P567. Click image to enlarge.
Black-and-white photograph of a smiling woman in a nurses uniform. She is holding a baby and a stuffed animal.
Nurse Helen Mecklin (Thomas) with a young patient, undated. Papers of Viola L. (Tyree) Lisben. Call Number: RH MS-P P567. Click image to enlarge.
Black-and-white photograph of a large, three-story brick building.
The third Douglass Hospital (1946-1964), located at 3700 N. 27th Street. S.H. Thompson Family Papers. Call Number: RH MS-P 510. Click image to enlarge.

During the 1930s the hospital experienced a steep decline in patients, staff, and funding. After graduating forty-three nurses during the last three decades, the Douglass Hospital Training School closed in 1937. However, with support from the Black and white Greater Kansas City communities and funding from the Federal government’s Hill-Burton Act for hospitals in 1945, Douglass renovated a three-story building on the former Western University campus to accommodate a fifty-bed hospital that included a bloodbank, lab, and obstetrics unit. On the building’s ground floor, visitors were welcomed in a spacious reception area.    

By 1954, desegregation practices in Greater Kansas City’s white hospitals eventually forced Douglass to close its doors in 1977. Afterwards, the hospital’s last building was torn down and its records lost.

Deborah Dandridge
Field Archivist/Curator, African American Experience Collections
Kansas Collection