Since its opening 58 years ago this month, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has led the world in advancing cures and devising therapies to conquer pediatric cancer and other life threatening diseases.
It is important to remember not all of St. Jude’s vital breakthroughs have been strictly medical or scientific.
Long before the research hospital began operating in 1962, back when it was still a quixotic dream of founder Danny Thomas, St. Jude was envisioned as a beacon of equality and inclusion. Unlike other hospitals in the South and elsewhere in our nation, St. Jude patients of all races would share rooms and receive treatment from physicians of all races—and everyone would dine in a common cafeteria.
This vision was outlined in local newspapers in 1952 when Thomas announced St. Jude would be built in Memphis. The research hospital will be “non-racial,” as one article put it. “And that goes for the medical staff as well as the patients.”
Consider how bold that promise must have seemed during a time of strict, pervasive racial segregation across the South and, honestly, much of America. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine for schools was still two years away, and a seminal event of the civil rights movement, the Montgomery bus boycott, wouldn’t begin for another three years. Most Americans had not yet heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name, much less his courageous voice.
Audacious as it may have been, this commitment to equality was enshrined in the preamble to the 1957 constitution of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization Thomas founded first to support St. Jude. In it, ALSAC pledged “to love and care for our neighbor, regardless of color and creed.” That manifested itself in the construction of St. Jude to find a cure for “leukemia and related blood disorders in children, absolutely free.”
Indeed, it could be said racial inclusion was built into the foundation of St. Jude. The original hospital structure was designed by the renowned African American architect Paul R. Williams of Los Angeles. And when the blueprints were drawn, a Memphis architect who was advising Williams’ firm on local codes and customs noticed what he thought was an oversight: the plans didn’t include separate bathroom facilities for white people and Black people. This, he later learned, was no oversight.
So when St. Jude opened its doors on Feb. 4, 1962, it became the first fully integrated children’s hospital in the South.
At a time when other medical facilities maintained separate wards for African Americans, if they admitted them at all, St. Jude accepted Black patients such as Cedric McCollins who previously had to access medical care through doors labeled “Colored.”
At a time when African American physicians typically weren’t allowed to treat white patients, the hospital hired Black doctors such as John Wesley Smith and Rudolph Jackson and Black technical staff members such as the Rev. Dr. Melvin Charles Smith to work side-by-side with white colleagues in helping kids of all races.
“People who had a different view of humanity were the ones who came originally and headed the hospital. They brought that spirit of inclusion and equality with them,” said Smith, a former senior technologist with St. Jude.
St. Jude’s commitment to racial equality drove changes that extended far beyond its campus. After initially planning to build an on-site lodging facility for patient families, the hospital opted to send them to nearby hotels. In the early 1960s, however, many Memphis hotels didn’t accept Black guests.
When officials at a prominent hotel nearby balked at registering African American patient families, Thomas and Dr. Donald Pinkel, the first medical director, warned if the establishment didn’t accept Black patients, it would get no business from St. Jude. Hotel operators offered to allow Black families to stay, provided they ate meals in their rooms instead of the dining room. Again, Thomas and Pinkel held firm and the hotel relented.
In the aftermath of King’s 1968 assassination in Memphis, St. Jude’s efforts to promote racial progress and equality expanded even further. Dr. Jackson, who headed a program to treat kids with sickle cell disease, noticed many of his patients from low-income households suffered from anemia, parasitic infections and growth impairment. In response, St. Jude enrolled thousands of infants and mothers in a program that provided nutritional assistance, medicine and even diapers. The program served as a prototype for WIC, the federal initiative serving women, infants and children.
So while we work to achieve Thomas’ iconic vision—that no child should die in the dawn of life—we also stay true to our mission of inclusion, diversity, equity and fairness. It’s more relevant than ever and can unite us to confront unacceptable death rates for children with cancer in developing parts of the world. Kids, like Cedric, who might otherwise be forgotten.