I have recently been reading about health care in Louisville at the turn of the twentieth century, especially as it concerned the city’s African American population. In honor of Black History Month, I will share some of what I have learned.
In the decades following the Civil War, African Americans explored new avenues of opportunity and advancement, including the field of medicine. Although some of the northern medical schools would accept black students, the majority of aspiring black physicians were educated in the South. Barred from admittance into the established southern medical colleges, they instead attended one of the fourteen medical colleges opened specifically to educate African Americans. Louisville was home to not one, but two of these black medical colleges. Henry Fitzbutler, the first African American doctor to practice in Louisville, was instrumental in the establishment of one of these colleges for aspiring physicians. His school, the Louisville National Medical College (LNMC), opened in 1888 and operated in Louisville for nearly 25 years. Louisville’s other school, the State University Medical Department, operated independently for four years, then merged with LNMC in 1903.
Segregated medical education had its heyday in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Historian H.C. Weeden observed in 1897: “Louisville has been quite a field for colored doctors in the last few years. At first the people did not take favorably to the colored men of this profession, but as enlightenment opened up the way, colored doctors fared better.” Things changed in 1910 when Louisville native Abraham Flexner published his famous report, Medical Education in the United States and Canada. This document pushed for the reform of medical education and recommended the closing of substandard schools. Following the publication of the Flexner Report, medical schools across the country closed their doors. The black medical schools proved no exception: by 1923, only the two recommended by the Flexner Report remained. Louisville National Medical College closed in 1912.
Despite the closure of its medical school, Louisville had other career opportunities for African American medical professionals. In 1899, a group of black physicians established the Red Cross Hospital, an institution devoted to care for Louisville’s African American community. The Red Cross Hospital provided employment for many of Louisville’s medical professionals who were unable to practice in the city’s hospitals because of their color. Underfunded and crowded, Red Cross Hospital nevertheless provided a vital service to the community— its wards were usually filled to capacity with not only Louisville’s blacks, but also blacks from surrounding counties. The Red Cross Hospital closed shortly after the integration of Louisville’s hospitals in the 1960s; it served the city’s African American population for over 70 years.
Excluded from the country’s medical schools, and largely denied access to the country’s hospitals, African Americans in Louisville and across the country responded with admirable efforts to provide for their communities by establishing their own institutions. The Louisville National Medical College, the State University Medical Department, and the Red Cross Hospital were only a few of the many organizations founded by African Americans to serve their communities. But Louisville’s black leaders soon found that with the creation of parallel institutions, they were also engaged in the creation of a second city. As Professor Blyden Jackson so eloquently stated: “Through a veil I could perceive the forbidden city, the Louisville where the white folks lived. . . . I knew that there were two Louisvilles and in America, two Americas. I knew, also, which of the Americas was mine.”