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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Andrew Best, April 19, 1997. Interview R-0011. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Fighting segregation in hospitals

Although the Pitt County hospital where Best worked desegregated earlier than other facilities, it maintained a "colored floor," where black patients stayed regardless of their condition. His recollection of this lower-level segregation prompts memories of his activism as a member of the Pitt County Interracial Committee. He pushed to end the practice of racially guided hospital admittance and for hospital staff to treat African-American patients with courtesy.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Andrew Best, April 19, 1997. Interview R-0011. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

How would you characterize the racial climate in this area when you came to practice? Was there a feeling that there were opportunities for minority physicians here, or did you feel that there were going to be difficulties?
My mind was open. To me, the fact that I could get on the staff here in Greenville at Pitt County was a plus. Once I got here, I didn't run into any real hostility, but I could tell that some members of the staffߞthere were about 36 members of the staff then, and now there are over 500, with Pitt Memorial and the medical schoolߞsome physicians were a little cool. If I said, "Good morning," they'd just say, "Hi." But very much to my liking, there were a few people who saw health care delivery as something that everybody should be involved and concerned with. There was a lady pediatrician on the staff, Dr. Malene Irons, and her husband, Dr. Fred Irons, was also on the staff in internal medicine. Early on, from the time I came in '54 for about the following ten years, all the black patients were admitted to the first floor of the east wing of the hospital. Even though we used the same delivery room, and the same surgical suites, to be bedded and admitted, they were all on one floor of the east wing, whether you had pneumonia or a newborn baby, you were on the so-called colored floor. Dr. Malene Irons, as a pediatrician, got interested in this problem, because in the early days, we had what you called an isolette that you put the prematures in, so they'd have the proper warmth and humidity. The newborn nursery with the isolettes was up on another floor. There were some barriers to having a black baby in the isolette in the newborn nursery. That black baby had to come on back downstairs, and shift as they could with the mother. This got Dr. Malene interested, and she and I had some very frank but friendly conversations about the problem. This is prior to the '64 Civil Rights Act, in the early '60s. Let me back up. In the late '50s, in the community there was great concern about the problem of segregation. There was convened a voluntary committee known as the Pitt County Interracial Committee. We had ten volunteers from the black side of the population, and ten from the white side. The idea of this particular group was a mandate to work on the problem of segregation. This was one of our agreed goals, to work on the problem of segregation at all levels, public accommodations, lunch counters and all. Dr. Malene was one of the volunteers. There was a white Episcopal minister, Richard Ottaway, who came out to my office, and we sat down and talked about the whole problem. Out of these conversations, we decided to involve some other people, and we sent out for volunteers, and the group was formed.
So you helped found the Committee?
Reverend Ottaway was the chairperson, and I was the vice-chairperson. As churches will do, they'll transfer their ministers from one charge to another, Reverend Ottaway was transferred after about a year here, and then the chairmanship was placed on my shoulders, and there was another "white liberal," as the folks put it then, Ed Waldrop, who became vice-chair. Ed Waldrop's name and contributions became very important as we got ready to build a new hospital, of the magnitude it is now and that would accommodate an affiliation agreement with the medical school. So we went along with this, and from the standpoint of being members of the Interracial Committee, Dr. Malene Irons and I approached the staff. We got an agreement from the chief of staff that they would hear us out. This was in the early '60s. My concern was one, that the hospital should admit patients based on the disease process rather than the color of their skin. Another concern was the fact that even the orderlies and nurses and hospital workers were segregated. They had dining facilities, with a sign on this side for colored, and that side for white. I told them I wanted the signs taken away. Another concern locally was that every patient admitted, if it was an eight-year-old girl, it would be little Miss Suzie Jones. If a boy, Master Billy Smith. There was no title given to a minority person, but all the white patients were Mr. or Mrs. and on down. So I expressed that to the open staff. My recommendation was to title everybody or title nobody. You can look at the hospital records now, and rather than dealing with titling everybody, they opted to title nobody. That part was all right with me.