St. Luke’s Hospital was founded on Woodland Avenue in 1894 as Cleveland General Hospital. Soon after being renamed St. Luke's in 1906, the hospital spent two decades on Carnegie Avenue before moving in 1927 to a much larger building on Shaker Boulevard in the Buckeye neighborhood that was styled like Independence Hall, where the founding fathers declared “All men are created equal.” The history of St. Luke’s does not match the architectural symbolism of the building as there are many cases of African American patients and staff being mistreated during the 1950s and 1960s. Some Black patients were physically assaulted, went untreated, or were segregated. St. Luke’s questionable history in its dealings with African American patients and staff remains relevant as events today highlight persistent issues that echo those that African Americans experienced decades ago.
The mistreatment of African American patients at St. Luke’s Hospital was common throughout the 1950s. For example, in 1957 a thirteen-year-old girl injured in a car accident was brought to St. Luke’s for medical attention. She was unconscious, but nurses and a doctor told her mother to take her home because, they insisted, she was “drunk.” The girl remained in an unconscious state for several days; however, a private doctor treated her at home. After she did not regain consciousness she was brought back to St. Luke’s, which now admitted her. The girl had to receive further treatment at home and the hospital for more than a year after the accident. She was never able to live a normal life after the accident and poor care from St. Luke’s.
Poor treatment of African American patients continued and in the early part of August 1957, St. Luke’s hospital staff rolled a white patient into an African American ward; however, the white patient had been dead for over a half hour. The woman had received a colostomy right before her death which produced a strong odor. While she was in a different ward, white patients complained about the smell. In an effort to appease white patients, hospital staff moved her to an African American ward, where they left her for over four hours. One patient said, “I’ll bet they wouldn’t bring an alive woman in here and leave her for four or five hours. If they don’t want to integrate the living patients then we don’t want integration because of somebody’s death. Especially when it's a case like this.” Later it became known that there was an empty room where the body could have been placed, but it was on the other side of the hospital.
Another incident, which involved another Black woman, Louise Ottrix, and her daughter underscores the poor treatment of African Americans. Ottrix took her four-month-old baby to St. Luke’s because the baby had fallen and hurt her head. Once Ottrix arrived her information was taken and she was told to wait. According to Ottrix she waited for about twenty-five minutes and then asked if her child could be seen immediately. She was told no and that she would have to wait her turn. After being denied timely service, she decided to leave and went to St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital where the baby was seen immediately. The baby had suffered from a skull fracture.
Protests erupted in February 1963 as a response to the treatment that African Americans received during the 1950s and '60s. The Cleveland Chapter of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) charged St. Luke’s Hospital with segregating its patients. Arthur Evans, CORE’s protest committee chairman, led a protest where forty people were present with pickets on February 22, 1963. The protests involved people of various backgrounds, including white people. The protesters, most of whom carried posters denouncing segregation policies, circled the entrance of the hospital.
Not only did people protest outside St. Luke’s but prayer pilgrimages were held outside the hospital as well. People from CORE, the NAACP, Job Seekers, Freedom Fighters, and the Afro-American Institute participated in the prayers outside St. Luke’s. Those in attendance prayed to God that St. Luke’s would end its discrimination against those of different races, creeds, or colors. Many people who passed by joined in on the prayer. After the prayers were done people began to hold a traditional protest. Towards the end of March of 1963, CORE ended its protests at St. Luke’s Hospital as its leaders saw improved conditions of integration. St. Luke’s agreed to desegregate its wards and semi-private rooms.
St. Luke’s was not the only hospital during the 1960s to mistreat African American or minority patients. According to medical historian Rosemary Stevens, Blacks all across the country often received meager medical care during the 1960s. Poor African American patients often identified the impersonality and rudeness of large hospitals like St. Luke’s as the reason they avoided seeking health care.
St. Luke’s continued to exhibit problems in its treatment of African American patients and employees. During 1967 four hundred non-professional employees went on strike or tried to unionize. Only two of them were white. Joseph E. Murphy, who was in charge of the unionization push and the strike, believed that negotiations would have been easier if more members were white. Indeed, St. Luke’s was insensitive to its African American workers’ calls for pay increases. The NAACP sent volunteers to join the protests, and Congressman Michael A. Feighan called upon the St. Luke’s administration to recognize Local 47, Building Service and Maintenance Union.
Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes worked hard to resolve the situation between Local 47 and St. Luke’s; however, by December 1967 he believed that he had “exhausted the maximum resources” of his office. Stokes also said that he could not force either the union or St. Luke’s to the table; however, he wanted to “bring about a settlement amicably and agreeable to all.”
The strike at St. Luke’s would continue to gain more and more attention as it stretched into the early months of 1968. Rev. Randel T. Osborn, an aide to Martin Luther King Jr., announced a plan to apply pressure on St. Luke’s through Operation Breadbasket. The goal of Operation Breadbasket was to increase African American employment across the country. Not long after Rev. Osborn announced pressure would be applied a deal was reached between Local 47 and St. Luke’s. On March 8, 1968, Mayor Stokes announced that the strike was over. The eleven-month strike ended with Local 47 being recognized as a bargaining agent with four hundred non-professional employees. Negotiations on wages and working conditions began soon thereafter.
St. Luke’s troubled past regarding its dealings with African American patients and employees have only become more relevant in today’s world. The troubles that Black patients and employees faced at St. Luke’s such as mistreatment, segregation, poor working conditions, and poor pay only touch the surface of what many African Americans experienced during the 1950s and 1960s and still face today.