Liberty's closing leaves void in city

Hospital symbolized progress, prosperity

August 03, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

It was 1929 and Maggie M. Quille, then 17, was determined to become a nurse. She packed her old nursing textbook, left home in Tuskegee, Ala., and headed for Baltimore.

Destination: Provident Hospital.

Over three years, in the midst of the Great Depression, Quille received a nursing degree and a job at the city's only hospital that trained African-American nurses and doctors, and one of few that treated black patients.

Today, 70 years later, Quille mourns the loss of the hospital, which closed Saturday.

"It really hurt my heart. It was awful for the black race to lose that institution," Quille said yesterday from her home on Druid Hill Avenue. "After all we put into it -- the love and respect and money. To lose it, it was awful. It was awful."

Quille speaks for generations of city residents with deep ties to Provident, renamed Liberty Medical Center in 1986.

For many, the hospital had been a symbol of black progress and prosperity, evidence of what black expertise and resources could build. Founded in an Orchard Street rowhouse in the 1890s by a handful of black physicians who had no place to practice, it flourished because blacks living in a segregated city flocked to the once-sophisticated facility. It became a beacon for those marking life's passages -- births and deaths and everything in between.

"The most devastating thing was the loss of the institution and its identity," said Tom Saunders, a local historian who used Liberty as a stop on his African-American Heritage Tours.

Generations-old ties

Some, such as the Murphy family, have generations-old ties to Provident as patients, donors and officials: Starting in the 1930s, George B. Murphy Sr. was chairman of the board of directors; his two sons, Harold H. Murphy and William Murphy Sr., a retired judge for the Maryland District Court, later held the same position.

William Murphy Jr., a city attorney, handled legal matters for Provident as it became Liberty. His four children were born at the hospital under its various names.

Well-to-do residents regularly donated money and time, serving on committees and boards. Quille, a neighborhood leader and founder of the Druid Heights Community Association; former City Councilwoman Victorine Q. Adams; and dozens of others solicited offerings at church and community gatherings, literally piling the cash into paper shopping bags and taking it to the hospital.

Medical and nursing students could work their way through school, serving on the wards by day and taking classes at night, and some received further training at Harlem Hospital in New York City. For years, the students were required to live in affiliated dormitories, governed by strict rules.

"Those were the days when `penicillin' -- well, the word wasn't invented," said Ada Veney, who with her sister Mabel Hawkins -- their maiden name was Vessells -- graduated in a class of six from the Provident nursing school in 1929.

"I suppose you could call it primitive," she said. "But it was clean. We took care of the patients extremely well."

She later became a nursing supervisor and taught classes in city high schools. "Everyone was looking for a better way of life back then for something a little bit better than scrubbing floors."

`Integration killed us'

For decades, the hospital thrived because of the city's large African-American population. A 1961 article in The Sun said, "Perhaps the biggest problem is that the growing number of patients are not able to get beds." At that time, admissions had increased 48 percent in six years, with medical care clinic visits leaping 144 percent.

But the article also lamented the hospital's antiquated facilities. Having changed location three times -- from Orchard Street to West Biddle to Division Street -- it sought improvements when it moved to Liberty Heights in 1970.

Many think it was already too late for Provident to survive: racial integration meant that African-Americans could choose where to spend their money -- and many chose white institutions, at the expense of competing black institutions.

"Our problem was that we were always underendowed -- money," said William Murphy Sr. "When the [racial] barriers began to fall it was almost inevitable that we would go under. Integration killed us."

In 1986, Provident merged with Lutheran Hospital and became Liberty Medical Center.Struggling financially, it merged again in 1996 with Bon Secours Baltimore Health System.

Though Bon Secours officials said the West Baltimore Liberty Medical Center facility was not financially capable of staying afloat, Bon Secours officials insist that the decision to close the center was difficult because of the hospital's significance to the community.

"It was a tremendous concern for the administration," said Phyllis Reese, director of marketing and public relations for Bon Secours. "We're hoping to maintain the trust to pass on the baton."

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