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When Kansas City's Political Machine Built The Nation's Only New African-American Hospital

Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library
Doctors and nurses at work in Kansas City's General Hospital No. 2 in the 1930s.

In the early 1900s, Kansas City was the only place in the country with a newly constructed hospital that exclusively served and was staffed by African Americans.

The facility was established in 1908, in a decrepit structure once used as a public hospital for whites and African Americans. The new building wasn't completed until 1930.

"The building that opened on March 2, 1930, was unique nationally because it was the only purpose-built, newly constructed, standalone city hospital for African Americans. It was far more common for segregated hospitals to occupy hazardous old buildings that had been discarded by whites,” said historian Jason Roe.

A new book, "Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era," includes a chapter about this hospital written by Roe, who is one of its three editors. The $300,000 facility at 600 East 22nd Street, was named simply General Hospital No. 2.

General Hospital No. 2 is not to be confused with Wheatley-Provident, which also served the African-American community in Kansas City but was a private hospital, unlike the General Hospital. Wheatley-Provident opened 10 years after No. 2, and served patients who could afford to pay for their healthcare. No. 2 served the entire community.

Roe, a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, learned about the general hospital 10 years ago when he was an intern at the library. During that time he wrote about the hospital for a series called "This Week in Kansas City History," and the general hospital has remained a topic of interest to him.

Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library

"They did not try to build something good enough for negroes, but something as good as money could buy," said Chester Arthur Franklin, a leading African-American newspaper editor at the time.

Roe told Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann that he took his chapter title, "As Good as Money Could Buy," from the quotation.

While it was true that the No. 2 hospital was excellent, its doctors and nurses did not have the same educational opportunities as white medical professionals and continued to be professionally segregated. So  they were not necessarily capable of providing the same level of care their white counterparts were, nor were they even necessarily trained on their state-of-the-art equipment.

"The experiment faltered in the space of a decade, and the program was restructured in a way that left local black doctors excluded from the professional opportunities available at the white hospital," Roe writes in the book.

His chapter describes numerous problems the hospital faced, including that staff from the white hospital (No. 1) regularly took essential supplies from No. 2, design flaws such as a morgue with no ventilation, and the fact that hiring and firing was done for political reasons rather than on the basis of medical competency.

All the same, Roe said, people in the community "were certainly right to be proud of this institution they had earned for the city."

Credit Jason Roe
Historian Jason Roe edited and wrote a chapter of the new book 'Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era.'

Regardless of the hospital's flaws, he writes, "indigent black patients maintained deeper trust for the care they would receive from doctors and nurses of their own race, and they generally did not have to wait in line behind white patients for treatment."

Tom Pendergast, Kansas City political boss of the 1920s and 30s, had been instrumental in the building of No. 2, but more for his own political purposes rather than the betterment of a segment of his population.

Missouri was a swing state and the black vote was valuable, so Pendergast wanted that population on his side. Roe said that many people on the hospital staff were paid to convince others in their demographic to vote for candidates Pendergast favored — not to administer medical care.

The hospital employed 95 percent of professional black employees of the municipal government of Kansas City, he writes, "making it the city's most fertile ground for political patronage in the black community of some 40,000 persons. Excluding volunteers, the hospital employed an all-black staff of 292 individuals, including 72 professionals made up of doctors, dentists, and nurses."

Because political machines operated on the patronage system, jobs were handed to people who would support Pendergast machine candidates.

"These hospital jobs could work the same way," Roe said, "although the doctors who actually practiced medicine there seem to have done very well at their jobs, given the circumstances."

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that General Hospital No. 2 was not the only hospital building for African Americans in the country as originally stated. Rather, it was the only newly constructed public hospital, with all-black staff and patients, in the nation.

Listen to Central Standard's entire conversation with Jason Roe here.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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