Historic St. Agnes Hospital gets a tribute

Celebration will honor St. Agnes' role in black community

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2012 

— For boxing purists, the old St. Agnes Hospital on the edge of the St. Augustine's College campus is best known as the place where the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, died after the roadster he was driving swerved off the highway in Franklinton in 1946.

But the pioneering hospital, which first opened its doors three decades after slavery ended, was also a training ground for hundreds of black nurses, the birthplace of thousands of black babies and the place where area doctors - black and white - got their start in medicine. It closed in 1961, the year WakeMed opened.

State and St. Augustine's officials will join community residents Saturday to honor the legacy of the historic hospital at the campus's Martin Luther King Ballroom between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The hospital, which for nearly 70 years was the only medical facility for blacks between Hampton, Va., and New Orleans, La., also had a dark side: sterilization operations as part of a state eugenics program. The program grew out of a movement that began in the late 1920s that sought to improve the human gene pool by sterilizing the poor, the mentally ill and others deemed undesirable. It led to the sterilization of at least 7,600 people in North Carolina between 1929 and 1973.

One researcher and former professor at St. Augustine's estimated that at least 11 of those operations occurred at St. Agnes.

State officials have estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 victims of the program are still alive. Last month, a governor's task force recommended that those sterilized under the program get $50,000 each in compensation.

Saturday's commemoration is sponsored by the community's North Central Advisory Council in honor of Black History Month.

"In the past, we have honored our neighbors, single individuals who live in our neighborhoods," said Octavia Rainey, chairwoman of the North Central CAC. "This year we decided to honor the legacy of St. Agnes Hospital."

Founded in 1896

The hospital was founded in 1896 by Sarah Hunter, the wife of A.B. Hunter, an Episcopalian priest who became the school's principal in 1888.

"Sarah Hunter felt there were too many people dying in the neighborhood who needed help," said Irene Clark, a retired St. Augustine's biology professor who will talk about the hospital's legacy Saturday.

The building is a roofless, windowless ruin at the intersection of State and Oakwood streets. For the past 15 years, school officials have been looking for money to transform the crumbling skeleton into a medical center where students can take pre-med classes and doctors can provide services. School officials also envision a museum that displays artifacts from the old hospital.

The project received a new shot of adrenaline in 2009 through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, who helped steer federal appropriations to the college. Miller's support led to the development of a new allied health services program on campus that college officials say will one day be housed in the restored hospital.

The college has also relied on help from what Marc Newman, the college's vice-president of institutional advancement, described as "friends from the Raleigh's corporate community."

Newman said about $13.5 million is needed to rehabilitate the building, which also would house the college's first graduate level physician assistant program. He declined to say how much money has been raised.

Although it appears that nothing has happened to the building, Newman noted that school officials have removed asbestos and lead from the building.

"People ask, 'Why did you remove the windows? Why did you remove the door?' Well, a lot of the lead was in those historic windows," Newman said. He added that the hazardous materials were removed by early 2002.

Newman would not say when restoration of the building would begin, only that school officials hope to be able to announce a construction schedule "real soon."

Allen Mask, a physician who opened an urgent care clinic in Southeast Raleigh more than 25 years ago, will also participate in the event Saturday. Mask, who appears on WRAL-TV, will give a presentation on community health and the St. Agnes legacy.

Mask described the St. Agnes story as a great history of self-sufficiency and called the chance to restore that legacy "a huge deal."

"I know these are tight economic times," he said. "But wouldn't it be magnificent to restore St. Agnes to its glory of yesteryear?"

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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