BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Looking back on Wilmington’s all-black hospital

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Looking back on Wilmington’s all-black hospital

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Janice Barfield remembers the old Community Hospital well — she was a nursing student there in the 1960′s.

“We worked from 7 to 3 then we went to class in the evening," Barfield said.

The nurses’ dormitory was next to the hospital and a very strict house mother lived with them.

“And she watched us every night. If you weren’t in there by 11…she called me Grainger. She went to my church also so when I got to there she said, ‘Grainger’ —that was my maiden name — she said, ‘you don’t do this and you don’t do that.’ I’m like ‘oh my goodness,’” she said.

Barfield says the expectations were at the highest level.

“They made sure we did everything right. The way we dressed, the way we talked, the way we walked down those halls. Everything was strict," Barfield remembered.

It was a different environment for white nurses at the white hospital.

“We wore blue dresses with white bibs and over, like an apron," Barfield recalled. "They wore all white. Our halls were made of just wood floors. They had carpet.”

James Walker Hospital was predominately white. There was a special section for black people but black doctors were not allowed to treat patients there.

At Community Hospital, though, they were held in high regard — black doctors were treated like royalty.

“Oh, especially Dr. Gray from Jamaica, and when he walked in you were just in awe,” Barfield said.

Dr. Samuel Gray was one of the first two resident physicians recruited by Dr. Foster Burnett, the driving force behind the start of Community Hospital. A year after coming to Wilmington to work at the all-black hospital, Gray went into private practice still treating black patients.

“When I think about medicine in this day and age, I can’t imagine practicing medicine in a segregated environment because that’s not the experience that I had—that’s not the environment that I trained in,” said Dr. Charmaine Gray, Samuel’s daughter.

Charmaine Gray, a pediatrician in Atlanta, was too young to remember much about Community Hospital but was raised in a house just down the street and remembers her dad seeing patients there.

“I can only imagine how important the hospital was to the African American community at the time because it was a time when African Americans didn’t have a lot of resources when it came to healthcare and actually having a facility there in the community had to be very comforting and reassuring," Gray said.

By the late 1950′s, both the Community Hospital and James Walker were in bad shape.

In 1958, New Hanover County residents approved a bond to build a new hospital that would serve all patients, both black and white. New Hanover Regional Medical Center would open in 1967. The Community Hospital was torn down in 1978.

Gray says it’s a shame that an important part of Wilmington’s history wasn’t re-purposed to pay tribute to those who had no choice but to practice medicine in a segregated community.

“What I am reminded of every day is that it’s because of the sacrifice and the dedication and the commitment and the excellence of African American doctors who were like my father and who made sacrifices and who made things happen — that’s the reason that I’m able to practice medicine the way that I practice now,” Gray added.

While Barfield embraces integration, she also cherishes her segregated days at Community Hospital.

“Oh don’t let me start," she said with a smile. “I think that segregation was the best thing that ever happened as far as our teaching because the teachers were into us. I mean they wanted the best for us and I think when we got integrated, it was so massive that we lost that specialty—like I said that personal touch. It was like family-oriented. It truly was Community Hospital.”

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