by Robert Booker
I was bothered the day I saw the news about the problems of Serene Manor Medical Center on Wray Street. Since 1957, it has served as a nursing home near the Knox County Health Department. It seems there were complaints about patient care and other problems that have since been cleared up.
If one can have an affinity for a place, one of mine is Serene Manor. I was a patient there when I was about 6 years old. Pneumonia had me laid up there for several days, and I have one vivid memory of that time. My mother brought me a Dixie Cup of vanilla ice cream that I ate with one of those little fl at wooden spoons.
I don’t remember any other part of my illness, but I cannot forget the taste of that delicious treat. I may have wanted to go home and play with my friends, but that cold, creamy sweet taste erased all my anxieties. I am sure that I talked about that ice cream after I was released.
By the time I was admitted to that facility, it was less than 8 years old. It had been built with funds from several sources: $75,000 came from the Rosenwald Fund, $75,000 from the city of Knoxville, $30,000 from Knox County, and $12,000 was raised by people in the black community. It was dedicated Sept. 17, 1933.
It was the new Negro Unit at Knoxville General Hospital with 82 beds. It was the outgrowth of a long struggle by black physicians to have the right to practice at the hospital. While blacks were treated in two small basement wards, black physicians and nurses were not welcome.
In 1929, a group of them set out to raise funds to build a hospital for blacks. In just a few months, they had raised $12,000. They planned to build their facility on Exeter Avenue near Knoxville College and took an option on a piece of land there.
Upon applying for money from the Rosenwald Fund, they discovered that it would not grant funds to a private hospital but would assist if the facility were connected to a city hospital. Dr. Samuel M. Clark, who headed the group, considered the matter and agreed to pursue a project at Knoxville General.
The stately new wing opened in the middle of the depression when there were few jobs and even less money for those who needed its services. A newspaper report of July 26, 1934, said that during the first six months of operation, the unit admitted 51 paying patients and 563 county cases. Of the maternity cases, 99 were charity.
Much to their disappointment, even after the opening of the new wing, black physicians still did not have full privileges to practice there. They had to work under the supervision of white physicians. It was seven years later on Nov. 8, 1940, a court order granted them full privileges to practice at that facility.
Knoxville General ceased to be when the University of Tennessee Medical Center opened in 1956. It had 60 beds for black patients on a portion of the third floor. That was 22 beds fewer than offered at the old hospital. It was not until Aug. 1, 1963, that all four major hospitals in Knoxville opened their doors on a nonsegregated basis. Had they delayed just seven more days, there would have been another reason to celebrate the 8th of August Emancipation Day.
So, while I still remember that day at the old Negro Wing when I enjoyed that Dixie Cup, I had actually been there before. I don’t remember that time when the unit was just 2 years old. That’s when I was born there and can’t be expected to remember that event.
Robert J. Booker, who writes this column for the News Sentinel, is a freelance writer and former executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. He may be reached at 865-546-1576.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel – Tuesday, July 8, 2008 – Page 11