How Kansas City pioneered integrated healthcare

Queen of the World Hospital was “open to all the afflicted regardless of race, color or creed.” (John Ratterman photo courtesy of the Archives)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Maryknoll Sister Madeline Marie Dorsey wrote in 1962, “On May 22, 1955, Queen of the World Hospital opened its doors to the sick of all creeds and races.”

“Through the effort of Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara, of happy memory, this project became a reality. The finest Negro and white practitioners, both general physicians and specialists in their fields, are members of the staff of Queen of the World Hospital and work together in beautiful harmony,” Sister Madeline wrote. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara, of the Diocese of Kansas City, worked to integrate Catholic schools in the city, and Catholic hospitals were an obvious next step in racial integration.

In June 1903, Kansas City was devastated by a flood, at the time, the worst on record. It quickly became clear that health and sanitation facilities were totally inadequate, at least respecting the Negro victims of the flood. Convention Hall, a large auditorium built in 1900 for the Democratic National Convention, was pressed into service as temporary housing and hospitalization for 110 flood survivors before they were sent to tent camps at 31st and Summit. Asked to provide their medical care was Dr. Thomas C. Unthank, a well-known African-American physician. While treating them he conceived the idea of a City hospital for the training of young black men and women in medicine and nursing.

St. Vincent’s Maternity Hospital, founded in 1906 and run since 1909 by the Daughters of Charity, was a 32-bed hospital with 36 bassinettes; its sole purpose was the care of maternity patients and newborns. The hospital was located at 23rd Street and College with St. Anthony’s Home for (abandoned) Infants on the same site. St. Vincent’s closed in May 1951 for renovation and made a startling announcement when the hospital reopened Dec. 1, 1951. Not only had the hospital been enlarged, but it was open to all maternity patients for pre -and post-natal care, regardless of their race or creed. Two black doctors were on staff and black nurses were to be hired. Within three months, the hospital hired nine more black doctors.

When a delegation from a community group in 1952 suggested to Archbishop O’Hara that a hospital be provided for Negro patients, he replied, “I am not interested in a Negro Hospital. I will suggest that the hospital open its doors to all persons regardless of race, color or creed.” He pointed out that by 1951 the Catholic high schools were all integrated (beginning with Loretto Academy in 1947) with no “apparent problems.” Within a few short years, the 32-bed St. Vincent’s Maternity Hospital was gone, and in its place stood the renovated 92-bed general hospital named Queen of the World. The hospital announced in 1953 that it would be converted to a racially integrated general hospital. As the Daughters of Charity preferred to work with infants and small children, they withdrew from St. Vincent’s Hospital and relocated with the Infant’s Home to 27th and Paseo. O’Hara invited the Maryknoll Sisters of Ossining, New York to take charge of St. Vincent’s.

Ten years before the Civil Rights Act banned workplace racial discrimination, Sister Madeline Marie and her Maryknoll team opened the first racially-integrated hospital in the nation, renaming it Queen of the World Hospital.

By 1962, the hospital had increased its bed capacity to 100. Not only had it increased the number of hospital beds, it had “also given the city a hospital where white doctors … take their Negro patients and Negro doctors take their white patients,” Sister Madeline wrote. “In staff, doctors, patients and administrative personnel, Queen of the World Hospital … the only interracial, non-sectarian hospital in Kansas City, was instrumental in opening the doors of other hospitals to a least a token membership on the medical staff of black doctors and patients. It took three years to convince even the General Hospital that integration was possible and that it was proven … desirable at Queen of the World Hospital. After much debate and long delays, General finally closed the segregated hospital unit and one after the other of its services integrated.” Following in General Hospital’s (now Truman Medical Center) steps, private hospitals in Kansas City, made a least a token effort to increase integration. “Two of the larger hospitals waited to grant privileges to Negro doctors and patients.,” she said. “With the progress made so far, it is hoped that the two hospitals still segregated will soon open their doors and that the others, whose doors are now just ajar, will throw them wide open.”

The medical staff … “was composed of 42 consulting physicians, one of whom was African American; 34 physicians, 25 of whom were African Americans; 8 dentists, 7 of whom were African American and courtesy staff of 175, 8 of whom were African American, giving a total of 41 black doctors on a total staff of 258,” Sister Madeline wrote. “The employees … always worked together amiably and at no time was there was a clash due to racial problems.”

The Sisters considered the medical staff relationships “excellent” and since the medical staff was composed … of doctors from other hospitals, they thought “the example of professional men working together in harmony” was an inspiration to many others. The original white doctors, the nucleus of the staff of Queen of the World Hospital, together with the original black doctors, remained interested in the welfare and success of the African American physicians and the hospital and continued giving loyal support to the hospital in its professional needs.

The hospital maintained a School for Practical Nurses beginning in 1956, with 96 graduates from the one-year course, 85 of whom were black and 11 white. Here, too, Sister Madeline Marie wrote, was “well demonstrated the harmonious mingling of the members of the two races.”

“The doors are open to all and the patients themselves get along nicely,” Sister Madeline wrote. “We have noticed that many of the white patients who have come to us return for hospitalization. In the Outpatient Department there is a larger proportion of white patients. These white patients, when their financial position has improved, have freely chosen the Negro doctor who attended them when they were clinic patients. To us this is a healthy sign of the appreciation of the character and professional qualifications of the doctors. Our patient load is dropping. We can expect this and cannot regard it as a misfortune, since it means that more hospitals are integrating and opening their doors according to true Christian principles and the American tradition that ‘all men are created equal’. We Sisters at Queen of the World Hospital are happy to be a part of the pilot project which gave the impetus and the example to others in the health field to break down prejudice and to work and serve in harmony. Queen of the World Hospital was a pioneering opportunity very much in line with the missionary spirit of the Maryknoll Community. All at Queen of the World Hospital put into practice the motto which hung at the door, ‘These doors are ever open to all the afflicted regardless of race, color or creed.’”

Dr. Rodgers, in his history, lauded the integration of not just the hospital staff and patients, but also the Lay Advisory Board, and the Ladies Auxiliary.

The hospital was fully accredited in 1958, with no negative marks.

Queen of the World Hospital closed Dec. 31, 1965, not because of failure but because of success. It demonstrated that racial integration in medical facilities could and did work. As a result, the hospital occupancy rate had been declining and thus the income. By 1963, all but two of the hospitals in the Kansas City area had African American doctors on staff and were fully integrated at all levels. As patients realized they could enter better facilities (Queen of the World wasn’t air conditioned) they did so.

On Nov. 15, 1967, the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd opened Good Shepherd Manor for Men in the clinic of the former hospital. In January 1973, the buildings formerly housing St. Anthony Baby Home and Queen of the World Hospital were demolished. Later that year, the Diocese transferred the land to the Brothers of the Good Shepherd. An anonymous donor in t981 contributed a sizeable amount to the Brothers, allowing them to retire the debt on the land. The Diocese granted a Quit Claim Deed to the Brothers, and in 1982, a new wing to the old clinic building was dedicated. Today, it is a private Christian institution, the Community of the Good Shepherd, offering adult disability care and a Christian religious center.

Queen of the World Hospital may have closed, but its legacy spread throughout the Greater Kansas City area. No matter the race, creed or color of a person, they are admitted to all hospitals and other public institutions in the city and given to the same care and concern.

The Catholic Key is grateful to KCPT’s digital magazine, FLATLAND KC, flatlandkc.org which recently featured this now largely forgotten chapter in Kansas City history.

Tags: 

  1. July 31, 2019 at 3:13 am #

    It is great information. I like it. Thanks for sharing it with.

  2. August 23, 2019 at 4:24 pm #

    So you have records for St.Vincents Hospital in 1945. I am looking for my mother,who may have given birth there.

Leave a Reply

Wednesday
October 16, 2019
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph