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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

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

World War II: The African American Experience

February 27th, 2018

The tradition of celebrating African American history in February was established in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.  The 2018 theme of Black History Month is “African Americans  in Times of War,” and this week we feature two brief excerpts from an oral history interview with WWII veteran William Tarlton. The interview comes from Spencer Research Library’s World War II: The African American Experience oral history interview collection.

Photo logo for World War II: The African American Experience, featuring pictures of Africa American soldiers.

More than one and a half million African Americans served in the United States military forces during World War II. They fought in the Pacific, Mediterranean, and European war zones, including the Battle of the Bulge and the D-Day invasion. These African American service men and women constituted the largest number enlisted in the Army and Navy, and the first to serve in the Marine Corp after 1798. World War II: The African American Experience begins to document the experiences of African American World War II veterans through audio recorded interviews. These oral histories are part of the collecting program established by the Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s Kansas Collection in 1986 to enhance the region’s permanent historical record of the African American experience. The collection includes donated materials that provide information about families, churches, organizations and businesses, especially during the 20th century.  The World War II oral history project is sponsored in part by the Sandra Gautt KU Endowment Fund, which Professor Emerita Gautt established to honor her father, Sgt. Thaddeus A. Whayne, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen unit.

William Tarlton: Two Oral History Excerpts

Photo of William Tarlton in uniform

Photograph of William Tarlton from a Squadron F 463rd
Army Air Force photo collage, 1947. Tarlton served with Squadron F
after re-enlisting, following his wartime service with the 371st Infantry.
African American World War II Oral Histories Collection.
Call Number: RH MS-P 1439, Box 1, Folder 3. Click image to enlarge.

A life-long resident of Topeka, Kansas, William Tarlton served in the United States Army’s 92nd Division, 371st Infantry. Wounded twice during the Italian campaign, he was awarded the Bronze Star medal for “his outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy.” In the passage below, excerpted from his oral history interview with Deborah Dandridge, Field Archivist and Curator for the African American Experience Collections, Tarlton recounts the experience of being shelled.

DANDRIDGE: So when you were training in combat, what sort of things do you remember you had to learn how to do?
TARLTON: Keep your head down. (chuckles) Dig a fox hole. Get in that fox hole or stay on the ground. Yeah.
DANDRIDGE: Did you ever have to do that?
TARLTON: I certainly did. Yes I did. The other one thing that I remember vividly is the fact that I was in, it was a bridge that we went across, that goes across a little creek. And we — me and another guy, one was on one side of the bridge and one was on the other side, I was right there, and three of the artillery shells that fell hit that bridge and they never went off and fell right off into the water. I remember they hit. And see that was, see that German eighty-eight millimeter gun was — you’d hear a “Boo” and next thing it’s on you. You know? Yeah, those are the things that— And that was about, that was one of the, some of the scariest things, especially at night. I mean it’s all dark over there and then — Oh, the other thing that I remember, I was, when I got shrapnel wounds in my arm and back we was getting close to the end of the war and we were up there in a British Signal Corps outfit and we went up in there and they shelled that outfit. And then we were going to get some breakfast that morning. Way off in the field and somehow or other they zeroed in on that thing and you — it just sounded like a pile of lumber falling down.
DANDRIDGE: So you didn’t get your breakfast?
TARLTON: We got it, eventually, after it got all clear. Those British soldiers are resilient people, they’re crazy some of ‘em.
DANDRIDGE: So did you ever, so did you eat with ‘em? Did you eat with the British?
TARLTON: (overlapping) Oh yeah, yeah we ate — I did. And, then me and several of us that was on patrol and we ate down there. Yeah, we did that. And they were very nice. And they were — So one of the things that I can remember that they were, of course I’m young, but the British, they always had some Scotch Whiskey. (chuckles)
DANDRIDGE: And so you all were sharing, is that what you’d say?
TARLTON: They shared a little bit with us.
(William Tarlton Oral History Interview, excerpt from  37:42-40:36)

Over the course of his interview, William Tarlton also discusses segregation in Topeka prior to his service, segregation in the armed forces, and his memories of being at Fort Francis E. Warren, Wyoming when the U.S. military’s new policy of racial integration was implemented after the war.  He briefly addresses these last two subjects in our second excerpt:

TARLTON: Well, we were still—We were still in segregated army when I went, in 19— when we got back to the States, we were still segregated. And then we went to Cheyenne, Wyoming and that was where — I can’t remember. I got that on discharge, can’t remember — But, anyway, that was Fort Warren, and it was all, it was segregated out there. They had the white troops over on one side and we was on, we was down on Randall Avenue in nice buildings, nice quarters. And I went to the motor pool and they gave me quarters over there where I started work on those cars, I was along with another couple of soldiers.
DANDRIDGE: Were they white or black?
TARLTON: Oh, two of us—yeah,  was white. We— We started getting along real good together because we was in the different area and we all —
DANDRIDGE: So you all socialized together?
TARLTON: Yeah, socialized together and—
DANDRIDGE: Did you ever go out in town?
TARLTON: Not together. That was one of the things that we didn’t do until— See in 1947, when they desegregated the Army, that was 1947 and I was out there when that happened.
DANDRIDGE: What was that like?
TARLTON: Well it was— The only thing, this old white boy come up to me and says—put your clothes down on the side, says “Guess I’m going to bunk beside you.” I said, “Okay.” (chuckles)
(William Tarlton Oral History Interview, excerpt from 58:40-1:00:34)

This interview, recorded on August 12, 2010,  is even more striking when you hear William Tarlton’s voice as he recounts his experiences. We encourage you to listen to the entire recording online here, where you will also find a full transcript of the interview.

Once you have explored the World War II: The African American Experience Oral History collection, consider visiting some of the other online resources related to Spencer Research Library’s African American Experience Collections, including the online version of the 2017 exhibition Education: The Mightiest Weapon and the Leon Hughes Photographs digital collection.

Deborah Dandridge
Field Archivist and Curator, African American Experience Collections
Adapted from her text for World War II: The African American Experience