Just recently I used the word “charity” while trying to write about “welfare” and as I was doing that I felt another discussion going on in the back of my mind; it seemed worth listening to but I couldn’t make it out so I just wrote on in the groove I had laid out for myself. Later, like just a few minutes ago, I tapped into that discussion I was having with “myself” while my other “myself” was writing away. Here it is.
In the mid-1950s, the State of Louisiana ran a big hospital in Shreveport, where I lived. It was officially named “The Confederate Memorial Medical Center” but it was more usually referred to as “the charity hospital” and, in certain circles, “the nigger hospital.” The state had operated “charity” hospitals since the 1870s but a modern state-wide, state-financed hospital system was the creation of Huey Long’s administration between 1932-1936. That system was expanded after WWII from six to eight medical centers in which half of the beds were reserved for whites and half for African Americans. These hospitals were rigidly segregated in terms of beds and services.
The hospitals were supposed to provide medical care to the working poor and although early on whites used the hospitals as often as blacks, white Louisianans assumed, or pretended to assume, that only African Americans used the hospitals. In the immediate post-war years, black admissions outnumbered those of whites in the state centers but, statisticians said, whites stayed in hospital longer so “usage” was nearly equivalent. In fact, in the late 1940s, while black children were admitted at a rate of about 42 per thousand population (by race), white children were admitted at a rate of 70 per thousand (by race). This suggests that white adults would not use the services but they would take their children there.
In the summer of 1957, when I was 16, a nurse my mother knew got me a job as a ward orderly at the charity hospital. In 1953 the hospital had moved into a new, $10,000,000 building and had, for the first time, hired a black doctor. By the time I got there, some black doctors and nurses staffed the African American wards and services, but in smaller numbers than their white colleagues. At the same time, African American patients far outnumbered white patients, from what I could see on a day-to-day basis. The existence of Jim Crow wards meant that black patients could not be given beds on white wards, and vice versa. In practice, Jim Crow wards meant that the greater number of black patients outstripped the number of beds available in black wards and so, rather than placing the overtally in empty beds (of which there were many, given white folks reluctance to use the “nigger” hospital) on white wards, we made pallets on the floors and in the hallways for the black patients.
I say “we” because I was assigned to the black cancer and orthopedic wards as an orderly, the only white orderly on the African American “side” of the hospital. (The hospital was divided by a yellow line that bisected the central tower in which the in-patient wards were located; clinics, also Jim Crowed, were in opposing wings on either side of the central tower. One was not allowed to take a patient of the inappropriate color across the yellow line, not did the nursing or orderly staff usually cross over for service; certainly no black doctor treated a white patient.) How or why my assignment happened I never knew but I took no exception to it and, in fact, for reasons I’ll write about another time, was glad of it.
In the next installment: some stories about medical care in a segregated hospital in the 1950s and some reflections on them, by a man trying to remember the boy he was.