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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Simkins, April 6, 1997. Interview R-0018. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Building a case against segregated hospitals

After writing a series of letters asking segregated white hospitals to hire black doctors and dentists, a visit from a black patient who needed emergency care motivated Simkins to push more aggressively for integration of medical facilities. He describes his efforts to build a legal case based on the claim that because these ostensibly private hospitals were built using some public funds, they could not legally exclude African Americans. The case made it to the Supreme Court on appeal but died there.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Simkins, April 6, 1997. Interview R-0018. 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

KAREN KRUSE THOMAS:
By the time the [Simkins v. Cone] case arose in 1962, why do you think you and the other plaintiffs chose that route to try to open access for blacks to better health care. Were there other options that you thought about at the time, or was a lawsuit agreed on as the best way to go about it?
GEORGE SIMKINS:
We first wrote letters to Moses Cone and Wesley Long Hospitals, asking them to admit black physicians and dentists on their staff. We just got the run-around on that. We wrote several letters, and they just denied us. After so many denials, it started like this. A patient came in my office, I think his name was Donald Lines, he was a student at A & T. He had a temperature of 103, and his jaw was swollen. I knew right then that this boy needed to be in the hospital, where he could get some attention. I called the black hospital, which was L. Richardson, and they told me they could not admit him because they had a waiting period of two and three weeks, and that they just didn't have any beds available. You would go over there, and there would be beds in the hallways. You'd have to walk down a narrow path through the hallways without running into the beds, because it was so crowded. Later that same day, I called up Cone and Wesley Long hospitals, and they had beds available, but they would not accept him because of his race.
KAREN KRUSE THOMAS:
So they didn't even have separate wards, they were both completely white hospitals?
GEORGE SIMKINS:
Wesley Long wouldn't accept you at all. Cone had a policy where if it was something that L. Richardson did not have, they would accept the patient, but he would lose his doctorߞhe would have to get a white doctor who was on the staff there to work on him. This case was nothing that L. Richardson couldn't handle, if they had room. The boy needed to be on antibiotics and hospitalized, but Cone would not accept him. So at that point, I called Jack Greenberg, who was the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund out of New York. I told Jack, "We really need to do something about these hospitals. They will not accept any black patient, and if Cone accepts them, they lose their doctor." He said, "George, if you can organize the black physicians, I will see what I can do." At this point, I knew that some of the younger fellows wanted to open up these hospitals, and some of the older fellows didn't. One of the reasons some of the older fellows didn't want to was because everybody was operating at L. Richardson. Whether you were qualified or not, you could operate over there. These fellows didn't want to lose their income from operating, and they knew if they had been admitting to Cone and Wesley Long, they would have to be board certified to do any operations, so they weren't too much for it. They also figured that if you opened up Cone and Wesley Long, it would hurt L. Richardson. Patients would stop going to L. Richardson. I went around with a petition, and got guys that I knew who would sign upߞI put their names on there first. Then I would approach the older fellows, and those that were reluctant, when they saw all the younger fellows down there, some of them signed, and some of them wouldn't sign. So I got about 11 plaintiffs in all, some patients, the majority of dentists. Then Jack asked me to see if either of these hospitals had been built with federal Hill-Burton funds, because that was the way we had to go in court. If they had not been built with Hill-Burton funds, there was nothing we could do to open them up, because they were strictly private hospitals. I was elated to find that both hospitals had been built with Hill-Burton funds, and we preceded to attack them at that point, on the grounds that they had been built with Hill-Burton funds. I went around and got 50 dollars from each [plaintiff], so they could pay for the expense of the suit. I sent that to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and we hired a local lawyer. He never would file suit after we had done all the work, so I called Jack, and said, "Jack, I think we've got a scared lawyer on our hands. We need to get this thing filed." Because it was months and months, and it never was filed. He understood, and said he'd take care of it. So he called Conrad Pearson, who was an NAACP attorney in Durham, and Conrad came over the next day and filed the case. So that's how we got started. Of course, we lost it in Middle District Court, Judge Stanley ruled that the hospitals were private, and they had a right to discriminate if they wanted to. Then we appealed it to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and we won a 3-2 decision. Then the hospitals appealed it to the United States Supreme Court, and they were denied. Bobby Kennedy was the Attorney General at the time, and he wrote a brief on our behalf to the Court to try to get the Court to open up these hospitals to everybody. That was about it.