Doctoral Candidate, Princeton University

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Review: The Color of Medicine (2018)

Excitement and anticipation hung in the air last night at the Missouri History Museum.  Hundreds of St. Louisans, donned in their Sunday’s best, gathered to take a trip back in time, to relive the golden years of one of St. Louis’s most prized African American institutions: Homer G. Phillips Hospital.  The affair had the air of a family reunion. Hugs were exchanged as people waited in line, and friends old and new caught up on the details of their respective lives.  Some inspected displayed memorabilia from the Vashon Museum while others walked the red carpet to the flash of cameras. After a more than two year “labor of love,” filmmakers premiered The Color of Medicine to an expectant audience.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital was not the first, nor the only, segregated hospital in both St. Louis and in the United States.  What sets it apart, however, was its size.  Homer G. was perhaps the largest segregated hospital in the nation, rivaled only by the US Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Moreover, the facility trained a large number of African American medical specialists, nurses, and allied health professionals.  Homer G. Phillips, I argue, was a central institution in the history of American medicine.  Beyond St. Louis, however, too few people understand the magnanimity of its legacy. The Color of Medicine will, I hope, change that.

The film project began as an homage to a Homer G. alumnus, Dr. Earle U. Robinson Jr., initiated by his daughter, artist Rebecca Robinson.  In the hands of filmmakers Joyce Fitzpatrick, a long-time family friend to the Robinsons, and Brian Shakelford, the project blossomed, though the project's initial celebration of family love was never lost.  As one might surmise when watching the film, Dr. Robinson’s life in and around Homer G. Phillips Hospital was complimented by the lives and experiences of countless others, each with their own unique and powerful stories.  As each of these figures, many well known in St. Louis, graced the silver screen the audience murmured with recognition.  Some beloved figures were applauded enthusiastically.

The Color of Medicine captured so eloquently what I have struggled to articulate in my own writing about Homer G. Phillips Hospital.  That is, the profound emotional connection between Homer G., the medical professionals it trained, and Black St. Louisans.  The hospital was nestled in the tight-knit historic Ville neighborhood, but the hospital itself was a tight-knit community.  Not only did physicians practice, and nurses care for patients, Homer G. staff communed with one another by playing cards, eating together, and visiting area churches and bars. By highlighting staff’s extra-medical bonding, The Color of Medicine demonstrated how Homer G. Phillips became more than a hospital.   For many, it was home.  As the film played, emotions ran high among the audience.  Some cried, as Homer G. nurses remembered how they never lost a patient in the sometimes hot, over-filled wards.  Others laughed as Dr. Robinson explained the “Great White Fathers,” those often-absent white medical department heads sent from Washington University.  The product of Jim Crow necessity, African Americans thrived in this segregated space.  This is not to say that segregation policies were supported by those affiliated with Homer G.  Rather, the conditions of segregation produced medical excellence and intense community formation.  The story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital as shown in The Color of Medicine, therefore, is a testament to continued Black resilience.

Last night’s premier marks a new era in the legacy of Homer G. Phillips, both the man and his monument.   Efforts to reclaim the legacy of Homer G. Phillips Hospital emerged in the early 1960s with Dr. Howard P. Venable’s history published in the Journal of the National Medical Association.  Amid the growing calls to close Homer G. Phillips, and later the effort to reopen the formerly segregated hospital, St. Louisans made political use of the past, articulating the hospital’s importance and why it should remain open.  The Color of Medicine is not the first documentary featuring the hospital. That honor goes to A Jewel in History: The Story of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored, St. Louis, Missouri which premiered in very similar fashion in 1999.  In this new era of Homer G.’s legacy, The Color of Medicine is accompanied by two book-length projects still in the works:  A book authored by Dr. Will Ross and historian Candace O’Connor (both featured in the film) with cooperation from  the Homer G. Phillips Nurse Alumni; as well as my own dissertation, “A Source of Pride, A Vision of Progress” which uses Homer G. Phillips Hospital as a case study to trace the broad history of segregation in the development of twentieth century American medicine. This resurgence of interest in Homer G. Phillips Hospital will ensure that the legacy of the man and the institution will live on for years to come.  Equally important, these works will emphasize African American contributions to medicine, even when segregation forced them to the margins.

The film’s premier was so popular that more than 750 individuals traveled to the Missouri History Museum to participate in the festivities.  More than 100 were turned away because both auditorium and overflow rooms had reached capacity.  The sheer demand has already prompted calls for another screening.  These large numbers are a testament to how much Homer G. Phillips Hospital was loved, and how important it was in the lives of all who trained, worked and visited there.

If you would like to support The Color of Medicine (please do!) as it moves forward, you can do so by contributing online. Interested in viewing the film? Hold a screening in a city near you!  It is certainly well worth the effort.  The Color of Medicine captures a history that is not often told: that African Americans were significant in the developments of American medicine and health care.  St. Louis is the most prominent example, but it is one among many still untold, but important, stories.