Dr. Charles Cook can remember the first time he laid eyes on the stone remains of St. Agnes Hospital. It was November 1980, and Cook was new to North Carolina. He had learned from a friend about St. Agnes, the once highly regarded Black hospital and nursing school founded in 1896. Most of the building, Cook’s friend told him, was still standing at the edge of the St. Augustine’s College campus.
“When I saw it I said, ‘Gosh, this is in real disrepair.’ There were no windows, no doors,” he said. I thought, ‘It’s a shame this can’t be used for something.’ Of course, ‘something,’ was as far as my imagination went at that time.”
Almost a decade later, Irene Clark, a professor of genetics, anatomy and science education at St. Augustine, was sitting on the steps outside a classroom when a janitor asked her what she knew about St. Agnes.
Did she know that the shell of a building was the place where world champion boxer Jack Johnson was pronounced dead? And the place where many Black Raleigh women had proudly come to give birth? Did she know that the college’s early students had not only quarried its stones, but built the facility by hand? “I honestly had no idea,” said Clark, who has since become the college’s curator of hospital history and artifacts. “But he had said just enough to really pique my interest.”
Now Cook, Clark and a committee of alumni, former student nurses, businesspeople and college staff have been asked to raise the funds not to only restore the humbled stone structure but to reconnect its present-day purpose with its auspicious and influential past.
St. Agnes has a long history of both upsetting and supporting the social order, nearly folding under fiscal constraints. St. Agnes also has a history of stop-and-start renovation and fund-raising activity, lawsuits and liens.
Just before and after the turn of the 20th century, treatable if not preventable diseases — such as typhoid, malaria and diphtheria — were common and disproportionately infected Raleigh’s Black residents.
Clark has collected volumes of information on St. Agnes’ staff and students, the medical techniques and training available there. She has compiled an interactive manual about the hospital and the story of segregated health care. It includes photos of students, miniaturized copies of student applications and a handwritten 19th-century law making it illegal for a Black person to learn to read and write.
In 1896, the year that St. Agnes opened its doors in a vacant house on St. Augustine’s campus, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the “separate but equal” doctrine constitutional. That sanctioned racially segregated facilities and services in nearly every facet of life.
In most cities, Blacks received care in small sections of White hospitals or were denied public care altogether. A few cities, such as New Orleans, had Black hospitals. But only a tiny fraction of them were teaching facilities where Black doctors and nurses were trained or where Blacks could have surgery.
After Clark began to connect some of the dots that she uncovered in her research, the school’s trustees decided to apply for federal preservation grants and work to raise the funds to restore the building.
— Associated Press
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