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How Richmond Community Hospital went from Black-owned to underfunded

Four nurses assist a doctor
Four nurses assist a doctor during "An Emergency Case" in the operating room at Richmond Hospital, a facility created in 1907 for the treatment of Black patients. (File photo: Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory)

A New York Times investigation found Richmond Community Hospital — a historically Black hospital in Richmond’s East End — is woefully under resourced.  

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of Virginia Black history at Norfolk State University, recently told VPM News about the hospital’s rich, more than 100-year history and contributions. 

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Paviour: Richmond Community Hospital was started by Sarah Garland Jones, a Black physician. Who is Jones and why did she set up this hospital?

Newby-Alexander: It was actually a a group of Black physicians and nurses who came together to form a hospital committee that incorporated itself, so that they could start a hospital. And Sarah Garland Jones was the first African American woman licensed to practice medicine in Virginia. She was the only woman in Virginia licensed to practice when all of this occurred. And she called all of the physicians and some of the nurses together in 1902 and said, "We need to start a hospital."

But all the hospitals that were created by whites were exclusively for whites. Once you started to see the birth of these Black hospitals, which numbered, I believe, over 150 in the country at one point, that's when they became competitors with white hospitals. And so, you will start to see a lot of white hospitals relegate Black patients in the attic, in the basement. And so, these Black hospitals were a very humane and respectable alternative to the very discriminatory way that African Americans were treated in the majority [of] hospitals.

How did Black doctors help the hospital survive? How do they band together? How did the community help the hospital survive over the years?

The one thing about Black doctors is they were independent operators. They owned their own businesses. They had their own private practices. And so, they generated their own wealth, and they were not dependent at all on anyone in the white community. And so, the wealth that they generated, they put back into the Black community.

From about 1900 through the 1940s, you would see the evolution of all of these 150 hospitals, beginning as the doctors pooled their resources together to purchase the equipment necessary piece by piece by piece. Of course, you're still talking about a period in which African American resources were really being snatched from them by society, especially city and state officials.

Of those 150 Black hospitals, your paper mentioned that two survived. Richmond Community was one of them and actually thrived in the '80s at different points. How did it make it and what were the obstacles, even at that point, for Richmond Community?

Richmond Community Hospital survived because the doctors who own the hospital actually decided to sell a portion of their hospital to Bon Secours. And initially, they were able to really thrive. But over a period of 20 years, it became a real problem. They weren't putting as many resources into it and modernizing it, and updating it and making sure that it was shining and sparkling.

Instead, it became more of a reflection of the lower-income community that surrounded it. 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.