Co-opting name, legacy of Homer G. Phillips Hospital is wrong

To the City of St. Louis, The Board of Aldermen, Paul McKee and Congressman Lacy Clay:

On August 19th, 1979, I woke up at my home across the street from Homer G. Phillips to helicopters flying overhead.

To my surprise, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department had surrounded the hospital. The streets of The Ville neighborhood were barricaded for four blocks in every direction. Physicians, nurses and other Homer G. employees like myself were not able to work that day. It felt like the city had enacted martial law just to get 50 patients out of Homer G. and transferred to City Hospital.

As I stared out my window in shock, I heard a knock at my door. A news reporter had scurried over to ask if he could use our telephone to call in his report on the closing of Homer G. Phillips Hospital.

My name is Julia N. Allen. I am a lifetime resident of The Ville neighborhood. I have lived, played, studied, worshiped, worked and been associated with every major institution in The Ville.

I was born at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1949 and worked there for nearly 10 years after graduating from Sumner High School.

I have fond memories of my friendships at Homer G. I used to babysit for Dr. Mary Anne Tillman, and, when my daughter died of breast cancer (long after the hospital closed), Tillman was one of the first to console me in my time of sorrow. These are the kinds of memories that make the Homer G. Phillips name mean so much to so many people.

I recently learned about the “new Homer G. Phillips Hospital” from the Post-Dispatch article, and it shook me to my core. It felt like salt on an open wound.

Here I stand cemented in my neighborhood, determined to restore pride and stability in my community, only to see a stranger co-opt our legacy in an attempt to placate the black community.

Who was consulted in the decision to steal this name and use it for a three-bed “hospital” on the Pruitt-Igoe site?

To many of us, the name and the grounds of Homer G. are sacred. We demonstrated all year to keep that hospital open. We held a sit-in at Mayor Jim Conway’s office and were then carried out on stretchers, herded into the city jail like cattle. But we were willing to sacrifice our livelihood to save a place that was more than just a hospital to us.

Nonetheless, our pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears.Like the last Homer G. patients, our jobs were transferred to City Hospital — one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. When the hospital closed, my life and my community changed forever.

In 2017, my neighbor Thomasina Clarke and I founded 4theVille. After witnessing our neighborhood deteriorate for two generations while its history was used by others to prosper and transform distant communities, we thought it was time to speak up.

We are based in The Ville neighborhood where the real Homer G. Phillips still exists, and we intend to remain here along with our proud history. Although the hospital is no longer serving its original purpose, it still stands as a legacy to its founder, the people who worked and trained there, and the community it serves.

Using the Homer G name for your clinic is just another example of developers’ exploitation of African-Americans, our culture and our institutions for their own commercial gains. It is one of those silent forms of institutional racism that planners, politicians and developers have used to cripple and devalue historic black communities. It distorts what this legacy means to the African-Americans who trained and worked at Homer G, who lived in The Ville and nurtured community around that institution.

Homer G. Phillips, Esq. gave his life so that African-Americans could have equitable health care in their own community. Your decision insults his legacy.

The Ville has been here many times before.

Chuck Berry was raised in the Ville. He attended Sumner High School. His home still stands on Whittier Ave. The Ville was integral to his becoming the “Father of Rock ‘N Roll.” Yet, to date, the Delmar Loop, Blueberry Hill and its private ownership are the most identifiable public beneficiaries of his legacy while the streets that he walked in The Ville crumble. 

Harris Stowe State University was opened as Harriet Beecher Stowe Teachers College in The Ville to train black educators. The school flourished and became an anchor of the thriving community. Yet, decisions were made by people outside the community after Brown v. Board of Education and the merger with Harris Teacher College to relocate the school to Midtown on the hollow grounds of Mill Creek, cleared in the name of urban renewal.

I am now 70 years old and still living in The Ville. I’ve done my best to be a model citizen. Many of us in the neighborhood followed the so-called playbook of “The American Dream.” Yet, the unfortunate reality is that we have gotten no return on our lifelong investment and sacrifice except the pilfering of our most endeared institutions for the benefit of others.

What we get are brands like “MurderVille” and “Hayden’s Triangle.” Our blocks are plagued with vacancy and abandonment. Our home investments have vanished. That home I welcomed the reporter into the day that Homer G. was closed — my childhood home — was lost to predatory lending and is now owned by the City of St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority (LRA).

All these circumstances are results of our community’s being stripped of its dignity. Your extraction of the Homer G. Phillips legacy is more of the same.

To reconcile the disappearance of The Ville’s legacy from the region’s collective memory, 4theVille began offering walking tours of “The Heart of The Ville.” We take tourists by the notable institutions in the neighborhood as we narrate the story of a resilient African-American community that, despite institutional racism, produced a history that has impacted the world.

The tour often ends in the lobby of Homer G. Phillips where senior citizen residents eagerly share their joy of being able to live in the same place they were born. Are you willing to take that away from them?

Adding insult to injury, your decision also disparages the legacy of Captain Wendell O. Pruitt, who posthumously became the namesake of the most notorious housing project in America, ironically constructed on the same soil as your three-bed “hospital.” Pruitt was an honorable man, a World War II veteran and Tuskegee Airman whose legacy was tarnished by the government’s mismanagement of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects.

Now his name will be completely erased by developers and politicians. He is deserving of a more respectable legacy. So, if your gesture is really an act of respect for the black community, why not honor his name? Why not name your hospital Wendell O. Pruitt Hospital?

Better yet, why not ask the community for their input?

For us to move forward as a region, we must stop doing things the same old way.  We need leaders who will approach their work with humility and respect the communities in which they work. We need developers who will create places WITH the community.

Don’t continue the behavior of destroying one community to create another one. The legacy of Homer G. Phillips deserves to remain where it stands. Honor this request and rename your three-bed hospital.

Co-written by Julia Allen and the 4theVille Team


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