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Prescription for change

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[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes. This column is the first of two on the philanthropic effort that led to creation of the first interracial hospital in the U.S.]

By Claire Gaudiani

Black philanthropy led to first interracial hospital in U.S.

In 1889, a young woman named Emma Reynolds wanted to be a nurse, not a domestic worker, the only real choice she had.

She sought admission at each of Chicago’s various nursing schools and was turned down, she suspected, because she was African American.

No other black women were enrolled in these schools.

Her brother, a minister, turned for help to another prominent black, asking Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a respected surgeon, to intercede for his sister at the white nursing schools.

Williams tried but was unsuccessful.

Williams and Reynolds were angry and frustrated and, in the great American tradition of entrepreneurialism, they decided to remedy it.

In 1890, Williams gathered a group of black ministers, physicians, and businessmen to talk about founding an interracial hospital and nurse-training school in Chicago.

With their pledge of support, he and Reynolds began their task. Soon they had the enthusiastic support not only of the black community but of several prominent white Chicagoans as well.

Donations came in from such prominent, wealthy white businessmen as George M. Pullman, Marshall Field, and Cyrus McCormick.

The Rev. Jenkins Jones and Nahyoke Sockum Curtis, a black nurse, persuaded Armour Meat Packing Co. to donate the down-payment for a house.

It became the 12-bed Provident Hospital, the first inter-racial hospital in the U.S.

Equipment and supplies for the hospital were donated or paid for by financial contributions from the community.

Volunteers provided a large part of the staff.

Black women who cleaned the homes of white families during the day donated their “spare” time to scrub the hospital’s floors.

Male volunteers whose color made them ineligible to join the local carpenter’s union built the hospital’s interior walls.

In 1894, Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery in the world at Provident Hospital.

The hospital came into existence the same way other change gets made by America’s social and moral entrepreneurs.

Community leaders in philanthropy worked together and recruited donors to produce the greater good, providing multiple levels of benefits to all of us and another case of enlightened self-interest.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the  author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism. See www.clairegaudiani.com

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