Documentary about St. Louis' Homer G. Phillips Hospital a labor of love | St. Louis Public Radio

Documentary about St. Louis' Homer G. Phillips Hospital a labor of love

Jul 25, 2018

In the mid-20th century, St. Louis was home to one of the only hospitals where African-Americans could train as doctors. In segregated St. Louis, Homer G. Phillips Hospital was built to cater to the city’s black population, which was barred from the city’s white hospitals.

“This is a hospital that was all black. From the very lowest job to the medical director,” said Earle U. Robinson Jr., an OB-GYN who completed his internship and residency at the hospital from 1958 to 1963. “Since the hospitals in St. Louis were segregated, Homer G. Phillips was built for the black population.”

Homer G. Phillips closed in 1979, but the hospital in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis remains a treasured symbol of black achievement in the memories of the many doctors who trained and practiced there.

Robinson, 86, kept its memory alive through a blog called Uriah’s Chronicles. Now, Robinson’s stories have been brought to life through a documentary, "The Color of Medicine," made with the help of his daughter and an old family friend.

After Robinson retired from medical practice 10 years ago, his daughter, Rebecca Robinson-Williams, encouraged him to start his blog after hearing her father tell stories of his time as a young doctor. Robinson learned to use a blogging platform and started writing.

Robinson started out earning $35 every two weeks and living in an apartment in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. When he left St. Louis, to work in Indianapolis, he found that Homer G. Phillips was far more sophisticated and advanced in some ways than his new employer, Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis — one of the largest hospitals in the Midwest.

Once, a woman came into the hospital with eclampsia, a serious condition in which pregnant women suffer from seizures.

“They were using antiquated way of treating eclampsia, for the convulsions,” Robinson said of the doctors at Methodist. The Indianapolis hospital was still using a sedative to treat the seizures. Robinson explained using magnesium sulfate would prevent the convulsions instead of just treating them.

“That showed me that we were far ahead some of the hospitals in the country," Robinson said of Homer G. Phillips.

For decades, Robinson told stories of his time in St. Louis.

“It just seems like he would light up every time he talked about it,” Robinson-Williams said of her father. “It was one of the best places for African-Americans to train in the country. And that's a pretty big deal, and I felt like this was something that other people needed to hear.”

Five years ago, Robinson-Williams started wondering how she could help preserve his stories.

Around the same time, the newly computer-literate Robinson had noticed on Facebook that an old family friend, Joyce Fitzpatrick, had moved to Los Angeles and was working as a filmmaker. It was a shot in the dark, but Robinson-Williams gave Fitzpatrick a call and pitched the idea of a documentary about Homer G., as the hospital came to be known.

Joyce remembered Robinson-Williams right away. “She said ‘Becky, I've never heard your voice before, because I've only known you as a toddler when I babysat you!’”

Fitzpatrick became the documentary’s co-director. A small team of filmmakers raised most of the money for the documentary in two months in a grassroots campaign through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, Robinson-Williams said.

“It seemed like St. Louis really longed for someone to talk about their city in a positive way,” Robinson-Williams said. “You know, they just always had some kind of connection, and people were coming out the woodwork [to talk about] their relationship with Homer G. Phillips.”

St. Louis officials dedicated the 728-bed Homer G. Phillips Hospital on Feb. 22, 1937. Since its closure in 1979, the building has been renovated into senior-living apartments.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The film premiered this year at the Missouri History Museum. Robinson, who became the center of the film, received a celebrity’s welcome and was swarmed with admirers as he walked to his seat.

“You have to realize a lot of history of America around the black rise from slavery up until integration has always been colored by what we have to go through,” he said. “And very few times we've been able to use something of a positive nature to support the fact that we overcame.”

Even though the hospital is gone, it can still serve to inspire, Robinson said.

“A hospital that was built especially for the black community, that was staffed by a totally black administration and employees was able to achieve so much,” he said. “To me, it is as beautiful as something like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial.”

A screening and discussion with the makers of "The Color of Medicine" is scheduled for 5 p.m. today at STLCare Health. The event is sold out, but an overflow room may be able to accomodate extra visitors. 

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