Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Secrets of St. Agnes: A Retired Biology Professor Uncovers Disturbing Truths about the Past Practices of a North Carolina Hospital

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Secrets of St. Agnes: A Retired Biology Professor Uncovers Disturbing Truths about the Past Practices of a North Carolina Hospital

Article excerpt


Sometimes the best questions, the ones that reveal new truths, are posed outside of the classroom. In the 1990s, Irene Clark was a biology professor at St. Augustine's College, a historically Black college in Raleigh, N.C. One day, a janitor asked the native Virginian what she knew about the crumbling, windowless stone building at the edge of campus.

"Little did I know where that conversation would lead," says Clark, who is now retired.

The crumbling building was St. Agnes Hospital, a place once regarded as the best medical facility for Blacks between Hampton, Va., and New Orleans. This was the place where hundreds of Black women learned to be nurses and thousands of Black babies were born. It was a hospital where some of the areas best-known doctors--Black and White, male and female--got their start. And it was the place where Black boxer Jack Johnson was declared dead.

But the hospital also played a role in the sterilization of thousands of poor and mentally ill patients, as well as other people the state of North Carolina considered socially undesirable, as a darker piece d of the famed hospital's history revealed this year.

Clark found the basis for the latest chapter in her unpublished manuscript about St. Agnes--in the records of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina.

"...[Negro], inmate Franklin County Home ... 30 years of age," one record read. "[Name redacted] ... is promiscuous with any man" who will carry on with her, the father of her unborn baby being the son of her former landlord. She would leave her children at night ... not caring for her children in any way ...

"Diagnosis: Feebleminded. Operation will be performed by surgeon on staff at St. Agnes Hospital..."

The records proved that St. Agnes and its staff were active participants in North Carolina's eugenics program--a program that led to the sterilization of at least 7,600 people between 1929 and 1973.

Founded in 1896, St. Agnes Hospital both challenged the social hierarchy and reinforced it. The hospital gave Black male and White female physicians a place to practice long before other area institutions. But nurses were instructed not to use the terms "Mr." or "Mrs." when addressing Black patients. Despite the social gymnastics, St. Agnes' doctors and nurses provided care for Raleigh's Black population, whether indigent or affluent, until the hospital closed in 1961.

Clark was thrilled to learn such a hospital had existed. But her research took an unexpected turn nearly a decade ago when she happened upon a reference to sterilizations in a book by the late Dr. Hubert A. Royster, St. Agnes' chief of staff for more than 50 years. A member of a prominent family, Royster was the state's first surgeon and dean of a state medical, school. In his book, Royster said he performed sterilizations on mentally ill and disabled patients at State Hospital. If Royster sterilized these patients, Clark wondered, were sterilizations also performed at St. Agnes?

For answers, Clark turned to Lisa H. Towle, who was writing a medical history of the region.

"She said to me, 'Don't go there," Clark recalls. "This is what her editors had told her."

While researching her book, Towle had uncovered information about possible eugenic sterilizations at area hospitals. But, when she told her editors she would need more time to chase down the truth, her publisher decided to omit the entire topic.

Eugenics was a popular concept in the early part of the 20th century. Advocates believed that the human gene pool could be improved with science, says Dr. Paul A. Lombardo, director of The Program in Law and Medicine at the University of Virginia's Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Traits regarded as undesirable and hereditary included not only physical and mental disabilities such as retardation, epilepsy and blindness but also poverty and promiscuity. …

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