In 1899, during the Jim Crow South â€” when laws enforced separate facilities for blacks and whites ranging from buses and bathrooms to railroads and restaurants â€” Simon Green Atkins made a decision. Blacks in Winston-Salem needed a hospital, and he was going to get them one.
Atkins had already taken on the need for educational facilities and adequate housing for blacks in Winston-Salem by founding Slater Industrial Academy and State Normal School (now Winston-Salem State University) as well as the Columbian Heights neighborhood where blacks could own their own homes. With those issues being addressed, Atkins turned to another dire need: proper health care.
At the turn of the 20th century, the twin cities of Winston and Salem had one hospitalâ€”and it only admitted whites. “During these years blacks were either cared for at home or not at all,” wrote Bowman Gray School of Medicine Professor Robert Prichard, MD, in 1976. “Neither the black nor the white community was satisfied with that situation, and the dissatisfaction produced three black hospitals in the years between 1899 and the opening of the Kate Bitting Reynolds Memorial Hospital in 1938.”
Atkins cast his fund-raising net far and wide, catching a big fish when tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds agreed to match any donations between $3,000 and $5,000 that Atkins could raise by Jan. 1, 1901. Atkins hoped to raise $2,500 locally and the rest in the North. The large sum wasn’t easy to come by, so Reynolds granted an extension that gave Atkins time to come up with a final amount of $3,665 by the next meeting of the proposed hospital’s board of managers in 1902. Reynolds donated $1,665 in cash and 11 acres of land worth $2,000 near the Slater School in the vicinity of the west wing of the modern Cleon Thompson Center.
According to Prichard’s 1976 research on Slater Hospital, “R.J. Reynolds told a legislative committee that he felt the need of having a place for his sick employees to get treatment. His thought was that his workers would miss less work if they had proper nursing. The translation of his thoughts into action is recorded, albeit incompletely, in the minutes of the institution he was instrumental in foundingâ€”the Slater Hospital.”
The original idea espoused by both Reynolds and Atkins was to have both a hospital and a nursing school in keeping with Atkins’ emphasis on education and the need for black medical professionals. The hospital and “nurse training department” opened formally on May 14, 1902, during Slater School’s ninth commencement exercises.
That first year, the hospital treated 90 patients, 15 of them emergency cases; performed 21 operations; and saw 10 patients die. Two nurses and the Ladies Auxiliary, made up of women in the black community, cared for the patients who filled the hospital’s seven beds. One of the duties of the head nurse â€“ who earned $300 per year â€“ was to solicit funds for the hospital, which ended that first year $200 in debt.
“Not only was there little money to build and keep the place up, but the black citizens who were willing to go to the hospital had little or no money to pay,” wrote Prichard. “It was a time when people who had the money to pay their bills, black or white, preferred home treatment.”
Besides the obvious financial problems, Slater Hospital was plagued by the lack of an adequate water supply that forced it to close for almost a year in June 1904. The hospital reopened in 1905 after a pipeline from the Salem water supply was laid.
Just one month later, Booker T. Washington gave a benefit lecture for the hospital at the Winston Elks Club. An account of the visit in the student newspaper of the school Washington headed, the Tuskegee Institute, said “it is evident the good-will already existing between the races has been greatly enhanced by his coming to the city.”
The Tuskegee Student article goes on to describe the Columbian Heights section of town in which the hospital and school were located. “This school [at present is] the center of a village which has grown up around itâ€¦Back of the school is a very handsome hospital which was erected by the colored people of Winston-Salem and the surrounding country, with the assistance of the white people of the city who are interested in the welfare of their colored neighbors.”
Slater Hospital ceased operations in 1912, and the building was later used as a men’s dormitory and as the location for home economics classes. That same year, the previously all-white Twin-City Hospital recorded the admission of its first black patients.
“An Architectural History of WSSU,” http://www.wssu.edu/WSSU/About/Administration/Information%20Resources/C.G.%20OKelly%20Library/arc_slater. Viewed 10 March 2009.
Murphy, E. Louise. The History of Winston-Salem State University 1892-1995. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company/Publishers, 1999.
Prichard, Robert W. “Winston-Salem’s Black Hospitals Prior to 1930,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 68 (May 1976): 246-249.