Celebrating Black History: A look back at Cleveland’s first interracial hospital

Black History Month
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) – The pandemic gave many a new appreciation for the efforts of caregivers at hospitals across Cleveland, but there’s one former hospital you may not know that is famous for breaking the color barrier.

A group of Black doctors dared to not only dream, but act.

Building the foundation 82 years ago for a hospital in the city that did not exist, an interracial one.

“In 1939 Black physicians came together and realized that the current health care hospitals here in Cleveland were not allowing them to practice,” said Dr. Miller, a professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Black doctors began to organize a campaign to raise money and change public perceptions of their skills and capabilities.

“The obstacle they had to overcome and then to graduate at the top of their class and then being told you can’t really practice medicine the indignity that they suffered had to be tremendous,” said Miller.

It would take more than a decade after raising funding before co-founders, including father and son Dr. Middleton Lambright Sr. and Jr., educated at Meharry Medical College, one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges and universities realized their dream.

According to Case Western, Dr. Lambright Sr. was born to former slaves and at one time was the oldest practicing black doctor in Ohio.

The city’s first interracial hospital, called Forest City Hospital,  opened in 1957. It admitted more than 2,500 patients in its first year.

“The patients could feel that, ‘Hey I’m not looked down upon because of the color of my skin,” said Miller.

Although it was considered a welcoming hospital in terms of racial equality, according to newspaper clippings at the time it was referred to as a Negro hospital. As time progressed, new challenges faced the hospital, including declining admission, and black doctors being hired to practice at other medical centers. Forest City Hospital closed in 1978.

“I believe we have progressed quite a bit we do have leaders, black physicians, black nurses who are leaders in the community, Dr. Barksdale,” said Miller.

Dr. Edward Barksdale, the UH Rainbow Babies Hospital Surgeon-in-Chief with a national profile in pediatric care, said he came to Cleveland to move from being “successful to being significant,” something he traces to his roots.

“59 years ago at this time, my parents integrated the school system in Lynchburg, VA,” he said. “Only the second integration case in all of the state of VA. Martin Luther King physically came to our city on behalf of my parents.”

Yet the words of wisdom from his grandmother still loom large in his life.

“She told me that in your life you must plant trees in whose shade you will never sit and so they were planting trees and I have been able to sit in that shade,” said Dr. Barksdale.

He continues to expand the hospitals’ reach beyond the medical campus grounds. Dr. Barksdale created the Antifragility Initiative, a hospital-based violence intervention program working with children between 6 to 15 years old treated for injuries due to violence. Families who participate begin a 12-month holistic program with the goal of providing trauma-informed care and post-traumatic growth.

“I wanted to create a vaccine against trauma,” he said. “I wanted to inoculate children and families with children in the urban core with hope.”

Building a bridge from the hospital to the people in the community it serves, like the doctors who dreamed of no color barrier to care.

“The only reason that you ran fast and that you ran far was so that you can hand the baton off to the next generation,” said Dr. Barksdale.

Pushing the race ahead he says so the next person can run faster and further than imagined.

“What they did, they gave me a baton and the race starts again.”

Click here to learn more about Forest City Hospital.

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