Looking back on Provident Hospital's remarkable history as first Black-owned hospital in US

Saturday, February 20, 2021
Looking back on Provident Hospital's remarkable history
Provident Hospital was started to address the healthcare challenges facing Black Chicagoans in the late 19th century.

Provident Hospital on Chicago's South Side has a remarkable past. It was the first Black-owned hospital in the country. The first successful open heart surgery was performed at Provident. The hospital was started to address the healthcare challenges facing Black Chicagoans in the late 19th century.

The hospital opened to much fanfare at 29th & Dearborn in 1891.

"It was really a community event," said Lionel Kimble Jr., an associate professor of history at Chicago State University.

Provident Hospital met a critical need for Chicago's growing Black population. One that its founder Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a Black surgeon, saw firsthand.

"African Americans have had a very difficult time getting adequate health care," Kimble Jr. said.

And difficulty accessing medical training. After Emma Reynolds was denied admission to all of the city's nursing schools because she was Black, her brother requested the help of Dr. Williams, the first Black graduate of what is now the Northwestern University Feinberg School Of Medicine. With the support of Black and white donors came Provident Hospital & Training School, offering not only medical care but also a nursing program for Black women. Reynolds enrolled in its first class.

"To be of the mind to start training other practitioners, other nurses, it's absolutely incredible," said Kim L. Dulaney, the DuSable Museum of African American History Director of Education & Programs

A few years later, Dr. Williams moved to Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Provident remained open and expanded with a post graduate school to train Black men in medicine and a larger building near 51st and King. But under crushing debt, Provident closed in 1987.

"As the neighborhood fell on hard times, so did the hospital," Kimble Jr. said.

Cook County purchased the facility and Provident reopened in 1993.

"I don't have to go a long distance now," said a nearby resident to ABC 7 at the reopening.

Today, the hospital is responding to a pandemic that has ravaged the Black community.

"We continue to serve those in our community who are the most challenged in terms of their ability to pay for and secure health care," said Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board President.

Like Dr. Williams during his time, many Black doctors in Chicago are fighting to address racial health disparities and to increase diversity in medicine. Only 5 percent of physicians in the U.S. identify as Black, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

"What we have to do, my generation, is really open doors and bring more people into the loop," said Dr. Clyde Yancy, a professor and chief of cardiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Williams once said "a people who don't make provision for their own sick and suffering are not worthy of civilization."

A longer version of this story will be featured in "Our America: Hidden Stories," which features little-known people, places and events in Black history.

The half-hour special will begin streaming on the ABC 7 app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and Android TV beginning Monday, February 22.