The Lasting Legacy of Lincoln Hospital

The Lasting Legacy of Lincoln Hospital

Much like the way a destroyed church or temple might leave a palpable presence underfoot, so it seems at 1301 Fayetteville South.

That was the address for Lincoln Hospital - one of the leading African American hospitals in the country. Now it's the parking lot for staff and patients of Lincoln Community Health Center.

Lincoln Hospital merged with Watts Hospital in 1976 and the combination moved into what is now Durham Regional Hospital. The former Watts campus is now the N.C. School of Science and Math. Lincoln's main building was demolished in 1983.

Dr. Evelyn D. Schmidt was Lincoln Health Center's first director, serving 40 years until retiring in September. Schmidt said she cannot look out the center's front door without seeing the ghost of Lincoln Hospital, a brick structure where the community health center opened in the basement in 1971. The clinic moved into its own building in 1982.

Dr. Veronica Ray checks Cassandra Shackleford's ear during a checkup at Lincoln Community Health Center on Fayetteville Street. Shackleford, 50, was in because of a persistent earache.

Both iterations of Lincoln were founded to provide health care to under-served populations. Both have legacies of providing top-notch service regardless of a patient's ability to pay.

"To come to Lincoln, you had a sense of pride, of dignity and respect and being prioritized as an individual that was not going to be treated differently for care," said Carolyn Henderson, a graduate in the last class of Lincoln's nursing school and now a member of the LCHC Foundation board.

"You were placed in a bed ... you were not placed in a basement."

Lincoln hospital

The brick building on Fayetteville Street, which opened in 1924, was the second Lincoln Hospital. It replaced a wooden house-like structure built in 1901 but was destroyed by a fire in 1922.

Lincoln was the fourth hospital for blacks in North Carolina, and the first without religious affiliation. It operated as a nonprofit. Many of its original doctors came from the Leonard Medical School at Shaw University in Raleigh, the first four-year medical school for blacks in the United States.

Before Lincoln Hospital, there were few health care options for people of color, said Aaron Spaulding, chairman of the Lincoln Community Health Center Foundation's finance committee and namesake of Aaron Moore, a black Durham physician and the hospital's principal founder. The best blacks could expect were community healers who might have studied under a trained physician, or gained some skill from a midwife or herbalist.

"It was not anywhere near as antiseptic or specialty-defined as we know it today," Spaulding said.

Surgery and medicine was not readily available until Lincoln opened and patronage was slow to develop. A second ward was added in 1907, and Lincoln emerged from the Depression as one of the leading African-American hospitals in the Carolinas, according to data collected by the Duke Endowment and national hospital accreditation authorities.

The Duke family played a lead role in the hospital's founding. Aaron Moore, educator Stanford Warren and N.C. Mutual Life Insurance founder John Merrick approached patriarch Washington Duke about the project, and there was talk of adding a blacks' wing to the already existing Watts Hospital.

Moore, though, thought blacks would be better served with a separate hospital, and a strong, symbiotic relationship developed between the black community and the hospital, with much of its funding coming from black local churches and individuals.

Lincoln Hospital at 1301 Fayetteville St. served Durham's black community from 1924 until 1983.

Filling a need

Lincoln Hospital started training nurses in 1903, expanding it to a formal three-year school in 1911 and continuing it until the merger with Watts.

"It wasn't always acceptable for African Americans to be educated as nurses," said Carolyn Henderson, a member of the school's last graduating class who went on to be a leader in the nursing department at N.C. Central University.

Lincoln's program was rigorous, and there was a deep sense of pride for those who were accepted into it. But there was also a lot of fun - the students lived together, and there were socials, mixers and dances to attend throughout the term.

The health center was the idea of Charles Watts, chairman of the Operation Breakthrough anti-poverty program and medical director at N.C. Mutual.

In the 1960s, indigent need was increasing, as was Lincoln Hospital's difficulty raising money. The health center's role was similar to the hospital's, but as a nonprofit serving poor people it could qualify for federal grants. Connecting with the Durham County Health Department, the center became a lifeline to many of Durham's working poor - of all races, though the vast majority of are still minority.

"I knew there was a great need because of the population we were serving," Schmidt said. "How fast it grew was what you couldn't anticipate."

When the center moved into its new building opened in December 1982, it lost only two days of operation.

"We have a lot of things that are kind of rare," Schmidt said, "in-house X-ray capabilities, a prescription robot called Fred, dental care, mental health treatment and other services provided through Durham Regional Hospital, as well as satellite clinics around the county."

Looking forward

The biggest complaint heard about Lincoln is the wait time, though they are far shorter than the average emergency department wait, said Phil Harewood, interim director.

"There's a lot of misnomers with health centers nationwide," said Vincent Lawrence said, a member of the center's board and a long-time client. Now, many people who never would have thought of going to a place like LCHC are finding themselves in the waiting rooms.

"They're finding out hey, 'I'm getting the same service I was getting when I had my own doctor, when I had my own insurance,' " Lawrence said.

With rising insurance prices, high unemployment and the stagnant economy, the center is seeing more patients and is renovating to add examination rooms.

"We're seeing increases in demand, but we're flat funded," Harewood said. Patients are billed on a sliding scale, and no collectors are called in if patients cannot pay in full.

"We struggle to survive," Harewood said.

Lincoln supporters recently founded the Lincoln Community Health Center Foundation, expecting it to become a stable source of income so the legacy of Lincoln Hospital will continue.

"When I look at Lincoln Community Health Center, what is its mission? Service the underserved," said Aaron Spaulding. "Service those who do not have health insurance. Service those who do not have a primary-care physician. So to me, though it's easy for me to separate the two entities ... where it sits, and what it does at the same site, hasn't changed."

Much of the historical information in this article was derived from "Durham's Lincoln Hospital," by P. Preston Reynolds, M.D. Ph.D., as part of the Black America Series published by Arcadia Publishing in 2001.

by Elizabeth Shestak, Correspondent

The Durham News

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