ST. PETERSBURG – On a Saturday afternoon sitting in the private room of a local restaurant, 11 women ate southern food and reminisced about Mercy Hospital, the only hospital for blacks in St. Pete from 1923 until the mid-60s.
These women weren’t just patients at Mercy, they were once employees. They called themselves the Mercy Hospital Alumni Association, and their goal is to keep that part of St. Petersburg’s history alive.
“We don’t do too many activities now since everyone is so up in age,” said Ann Gethers, the first and only president of the association since its inception in 1993.
Gethers, who trained as an x-ray technician at the all-white Mound Park Hospital, went back and forth between the two. She eventually worked at Mound Park fulltime.
During the summertime, members are on break from association duties, but Gethers assembled everyone together because its eldest member was in town from Kalamazoo, Mich., the spunky 98-year-old Mamie Chapman.
The association once boasted close to 100 members, but time and distance have dwindled the numbers down to about 13, with its youngest member being 75 years old.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the black community in St. Petersburg had its own schools, churches, restaurants and retail stores. Everything a person needed, except a hospital.
Since African Americans were not accepted at the whites-only hospitals, care came from members of the community who had a little medical knowledge. In 1913, the all-white, five-room Good Samaritan Hospital was moved to the south side to service the black community. It was rechristened Mercy Hospital.
Unable to provide quality healthcare for St. Pete’s growing black population, it took 10 years for a more adequate facility to be built. Separate but not equal, the new Mercy Hospital open its doors in 1923 at 1344 22nd St. S. The additional jobs provided attracted an educated population to the area, and by 1926, the hospital got its first black doctor, James Maxie Ponder.
By 1942, 400-square-feet were added on, but it was nowhere near enough space for the growing African-American community. In 1947 that add on was torn down to make way for a 15,000 square-foot-expansion.
In 1949, registered nurse Emma Tillman began working at Mercy. Fresh out of Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Atlanta, she worked there until the doors were closed in 1966.
“Staff at Mercy became family. We got along really well; we just helped each other. We didn’t have a lot of help, but we worked together. Aides, maids and all…nurses and doctors, we were nice to each other,” said 90-year-old Tillman.
Once the hospital closed for financial reasons, Tillman began working at Mound Park Hospital, later named Bayfront Medical Center, and retired there in the 1980s.
Despite being understaffed and the lack of modern equipment, the staff worked tirelessly to provide top-quality healthcare for the black community.
Mattie Bennett worked at Mercy from 1946 until it closed. She also attended Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Atlanta after graduating from Gibbs High School in 1942.
Bennett worked with all of the primary doctors of the hospital, including Dr. Ponder, Dr. Breaux Martin, Dr. Fred W. Alsup, Dr. Orion T. Ayer, Sr., Dr. Ralph M. Wimbish, Sr., Dr. Harry F. Taliaferro and Dr. Eugene C. Rose.
Once Mercy closed, she became a charge nurse at night at Mound Park. Bennett said she took the racism from working with white patients and staff in stride.
Today, she keeps herself busy with the Mercy Hospital Alumni Association, the Registered Nurses Club, where she is the last living charter member, Hospice, Red Cross and is the pianist for United for Christ Freewill Church.
“There was no problem at Mercy because we all worked together. We were more or less depended on each other,” said Carrie Avery, who trained as a LPN at Mercy in 1958 and worked there until it closed.
Like most of the alumnus, she also moved on to Mound Park.
“You were black and they let you know that you were black,” said Avery. There were a lot of opportunities that were not available to you. They gave you the most difficult patients needing the most care, but we were accustomed to it.”
And accustomed to it they were. Nurses at Mercy handled everything from obstetrics, to accident victims to infectious diseases. Nothing new was thrown at them at Mound Park.
Avery eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in public health and retired from the health department.
The Jim Crow laws always held Mercy Hospital at a disadvantage. For many years it lacked its own pharmacy, laboratory, EKG and other technical equipment. The equipment that it did have was outdated, hand-me-downs from Mound Park. Inadequate heating and cooling made it very hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
But according to Elnora Manuel, it was a step up from working at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. At the time she finished nursing school, she was turned down for employment at Mercy since her brother worked for the city and Mercy was a city hospital.
During her short time at Morton Plant, she worked under the thumb of Jim Crow. Black patients were stationed in the basement, Station 8. The only thing separating each patient, whether they had an infectious disease or a heart attack, was a curtain. Of course there was no air conditioning, and being in the basement, not even a window could be cracked.
Fortunately for her, Rev. Enoch Davis of Bethel Community pulled some strings and she was able to come on at Mercy. She worked there from 1961 until it closed.
“Working conditions were a lot better at Mercy,” said Manuel, who eventually worked with Dr. Alsup and Ayers in labor and delivery.
Manuel recounted when she was new at Mercy and was assigned to bathe a psychiatric patient who could tell she was wet behind the ears.
“I was scared to death,” said the 80 year old.
The patient walked right out of the room and proceeded to throw the “men around like basketballs” who tried to get her back into the room.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m going home. I’m not going to tackle that woman,’” she laughed.
Once the patient was back into the room, the other nurses helped Manuel calm her down and stood by her side while she bathe her.
“Everybody took care of everybody,” she said.
After transferring to Mound Park, she had to take a test to be able to administer medication to white patients, even though she was a LPN at Mercy. She went on to work in medical surgery and retired as an RN from Bay Pines VA Hospital in 1996.
“It was an excellent learning experience,” said Ernestine Rembert. You learn stuff you’d never forget.”
Rembert worked at Mercy from 1961 to it closed, and was transferred to Mound Park.
“We worked on the hardest floors,” she said.
Rembert recalled working on non-air-conditioned floors near the kitchen at Mound Park. It didn’t help that their uniforms were polyester double-knit either.
“Some of them [white patients] didn’t want you to take care of them. ‘I don’t want that nigger taking care of me,’” she said she heard a few times.
She eventually received a master’s degree, retired from the Army Reserves in 1998 and from public health in 2005.
Not a member of the Mercy Hospital Alumni Association, Catherine Crumbs stopped by to say hello to Mrs. Chapman.
“I was a candy striper,” said Crumbs, who credits the nurses at Mercy Hospital for giving her the “zeal for nursing.”
While at Gibbs High School, Crumbs gave patients water, read to them and wrote letters for them. She was taught basic patient care, which came in handy since she was the only person one burn victim would allow to touch her.
After finishing high school, she became a nurse’s aide at Mound Park. Crumbs went on to become an LPN, RN, obtain a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing, a minor in surgical nursing and a master’s in gerontology, all while raising children and taking care of her husband.
“I took one class at a time. It took me 20 years to get where I am,” said Crumbs.
She persevered through the professors telling her that she couldn’t learn and white students calling her names.
“I could tell you some stories that would make you cry,” she said. “We had to fight to get through school. All you heard is that you weren’t good enough or smart enough.”
Once she got a tutor to teach her how to study, the rest was history. Almost 20 years after that ordeal, she ended up teaching nursing at the very same college, retiring in 2013.
Since 1978, Crumbs has tutored at the Pinellas County Urban League because she doesn’t “want to hear any other student be told that they can’t do it.”
Crumbs said a teacher should be like a locksmith. “You have to find what key that will unlock their brains. Not everyone learns the same.”
By 1964, Mound Park Hospital had begun to accept black patients; nevertheless, people still went to Mercy because it was in the heart of the community and patients were worried about racism at the newly integrated Mound Park.
In 1966 with record high deficits, Mercy Hospital closed its doors. Residents were sadden to see the hospital close, but rejoiced to see Jim Crow losing its grip on the area. Employees transferred to Mound Park and doctors thrived in private practice and held staff privileges in other area hospitals.
Decades passed with the old Mercy Hospital sitting empty. In 1998 the city purchased the property. After renovations, the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center was moved into the historic Mercy Hospital building. On February 2, 2004, the first patient walked through the doors of the 27,000-square-foot state-of-the-art medical facility.
Historical background for this article came from the book “St. Petersburg’s Mercy Hospital: A History of Caring” by Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly.