The name “Homer G. Phillips Hospital” is still spoken with reverence, not only in the black community of St. Louis, but across the country.
Opened in 1937, it was the only public hospital for blacks in St. Louis until 1955.
It was also a training center, where black doctors and nurses from around the world came to complete their medical residency. By 1961, the hospital had trained the largest number of black doctors and nurses in the world.
“Many nurses came from poor rural backgrounds and later found jobs all over the country,” said author and historian Candace O’Connor in a March interview with the St. Louis American. “Because all you had to do was say, ‘I’m from Homer Phillips’ and they’d say ‘you’re hired’.”
Despite years of community protests, the city canceled and closed the hospital in 1979. Now, more than 40 years later, the Homer G. Phillips Hospital’s name is again at the center of the protests.
On July 11, Homer G. Phillips Nurses’ Alumni Inc. filed a federal trial against St. Louis developer Paul McKee Jr. for trademark infringement.
It’s the latest in a series of attempts since 2020 to block McKee from naming his proposed three-bed health facility “Homer G. Phillips Hospital.”
McKee is proposing to build the $20.5 million hospital project on the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and it is expected to receive $8 million in public funding.
“We are 1,000% opposed to Paul McKee stealing the name of this legacy,” said Zenobia Thompson, who served as head nurse at Homer G. Phillips and helped lead the unsuccessful fight in the 1970s. to stop city leaders from shutting down the iconic Black University Hospital.
The lawsuit states that the alumni group’s name is a trademark and that the name of the new health center will infringe on that trademark.
“Based on our interpretation of the law, if the name of the health center is similar or implies an association with my client, then we believe our claim is valid,” said Richard Voytas Jr., who represents the group.
McKee’s lawyer, Darryl Piggee, told The Independent on Tuesday that plans had not changed, but would not comment further. He hadn’t seen the trial yet.
In December, the Council of Aldermen of Saint-Louis adopted a resolution deeming the name of the health center “inappropriate cultural appropriation”.
Congresswoman Cori Bush and Mayor Tishaura Jones issued a joint statement A little after.
“To profit from the name of Homer G. Phillips in a small 3-bed facility that will not meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities is an insult to the legacy of Homer G. Phillips and to the black community,” they wrote. they stated.
They urged McKee to listen to former Homer G. Phillips nurses, advocates, healthcare workers and residents who demand he change his name.
“There is not a major current political leader in the city who has not called on Mr. McKee to change his name,” said activist Walle Amusa, who is part of a coalition fighting against the name. “Only the arrogance of privilege or outright racism will put someone like that in a position to step forward and essentially mark the legacy of a community.”
Former congressman Lacy Clay, who had a working relationship with McKee, was criticized in the last congressional elections for being silent on the issue. Amusa said he did not help orchestrate a meeting between McKee and the coalition opposing the name.
Bush, who is a nurse herself and challenged Clay, stood up and fought alongside the former nurses.
“I stand in solidarity with doctors, nurses and community members to say ‘No,'” Bush said. during an interview in 2020. “I would like our congressman to stand with the people and not with his cronies.”
It was a blow to Clay’s campaign, as Homer G. Phillips is one of the most important institutions in the city’s African American history.
Bush’s challenger in the August 2 Democratic primary, Steve Roberts, also face heat for his slowness in standing by the coalition. but has since publicly stated that he opposes the name
McKee’s proposed hospital will be located within its NorthSide Regeneration development footprint, which covers much of North St. Louis and originally received a TIF of $390 million in 2009.
In June 2018, city officials attempted to terminate the development agreement for the NorthSide Regeneration project. The default notice the city sent to McKee stated, “After a decade, the promised redevelopment has not come, and there is no indication that it will.”
Even today, much of McKee’s redevelopment plans for North St. Louis have not been realized.
Amusa notes that when Homer G. Phillips was operating, surrounding neighborhoods and businesses flourished. It was a dream that even Homer G. Phillips, the lawyer and civil rights leader who led the fight to secure public funding for the hospital in 1921, did not live to see. He was assassinated in 1931, and construction on the building began a year after Phillips’ still unsolved murder.
“The community is saying, ‘Change the name,'” Amusa said. “They don’t say, ‘There is no clinic.’ Don’t trivialize the legacy, struggles, blood, sweat and tears of black people in this community. It’s a very simple request.