Community Unites to save Historic Colored Hospital Building Facility will house Civil Rights and Family History Center

July 2018

Colored Hospital

W.R. Burleigh, at left, with Dr. Ross Douthard, MD.

Mabel E. Barnum 1894-1971

Orderly at hospital

In 2007, veterans of the Americus-Sumter County Civil Rights Movement (1962-66) met at Barnum’s Funeral Home
on Poplar Street to begin dialogue on how best to preserve the legacy of one of the most significant social movements of its era. The funeral home was considered ground zero for the Americus Movement, as it took the lead in providing a sanctuary for civil rights activists to meet, eat, sleep, plan and conduct movement activity. Owners John and Mabel Barnum used their resources to provide bail for hundreds of Americus youths who were being arrested and jailed in Americus, Leesburg, and Dawson, Georgia. The Americus protests were noted for having the highest number of juveniles arrested and jailed for longer periods of time than any other cities across the south. Often referenced by civil rights activists and scholars, Americus is the only place where both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC, and John Lewis of SNCC, heads of two major civil rights organizations, were both incarcerated. Former SNCC Chairman, now Congressman John Lewis, referenced the Americus Movement during his speech at the historic March on Washington in 1963. It was here in Americus that two major legal victories that impacted the entire southern civil rights movement were decided in federal court in what is now the Municipal Building on Lamar Street.

Drive through any state in the deep-south and you will find a monument or museum dedicated to civil rights. Now a second generation of these institutions is emerging both large and small throughout the country. Collectively, they signal an emerging era of scholarship and interest in the history of African Americans and the civil rights movement to a younger generation. As with other historical events that moved from painful reality to memorials and academic scholarship, the importance of the civil rights movement gets heightened as the last of its participants make their transitions.

For several years now, the Americus-Sumter County Movement Committee, Inc. (ASCMC) has been collecting documentation on the Americus Civil Rights Movement. Those documents include papers related to movement activities, letters, diaries, jail records, photographs, field reports and oral history recordings of former activists and community leaders. Expertise is now needed by those willing to assist in identifying, and cataloguing collected papers and photographs. In addition, the ACSMC is encouraging local educators, writers, photographers, visual/graphic design artists, website builders and social media managers to lend their services to the project. Several weeks ago, the ASCMC and the City Federation of Colored Women’s Club, owners of the building formerly known as The Colored Hospital, agreed to partner to preserve and rehabilitate the historic building. The facility will then house the Americus-Sumter Civil Rights and Family
History Center, which will include the Colored Hospital Museum. Recognized by the Georgia Historical Registry, and recently added to the Americus Downtown Historic District, the building is located at 133 J.R. Campbell Street, bordered by Jackson Street and Cotton Avenue.

The Colored Hospital was established in 1923 by Dr. W. Stuart Prather, a white physician from Harlem, Georgia near Augusta, who operated the Prather Clinic across the street from the First Presbyterian Church. A progressive for his time, Dr. Prather was a visionary who recognized the need for adequate medical care for African Americans, who often had to rely on home remedies because they were denied care at white medical facilities in Sumter County and throughout the south. Under these egregious conditions, African Americans suffered greatly which prompted Dr. Prather to purchase the property from the Coffey Estate, an Irish family who owned the property prior to the civil war. Dr. Prather then galvanized local blacks and whites to raise funds to construct and operate the hospital. Key players in engaging the African American community to assist were men and women like businessman and hospital finance chairman, W.R Burleigh, and Sam Weston, Chairman of the Americus Negro Business League, Mrs. Mabel Barnum, hospital financial secretary, The Phyllis
Wheatley Civic Club for Colored Women, and E.D. Reddick of Staley High School. From 1923 to 1953, the Colored Hospital was the only medical facility in Georgia where African Americans could practice and serve people of color. During that time, the hospital was associated with 33 medical doctors of color, two dentists, two pharmacists, six registered nurses, 18 nursing professionals, and a nursing and midwifery school. Dr. R.H. Moore, a Howard University graduate and resident physician, led the operation of the hospital, while lead nurse, Mrs. Magnolia Renfroe held the position of superintendent. The hospital was managed by Mrs. Lillian Dudley, whose two grandsons were local physicians. The facility was not only a vital lifeline for a poor and marginalized African American community, it was a stabilizing institution that unified and sustained them during the horrendous Jim Crow era of discrimination and second-class citizenship.

When the hospital ceased operation in 1953, the City Federation of Colored Women’s Club, purchased, and assumed care for the treasured building and developed community social services and after school programming for Americus youth. During the Americus Civil Rights Movement, the building became one of two “Freedom Centers” for planning and implementing movement strategy. Adult literacy classes were conducted by volunteers to teach African Americans how to prepare for and pass, the unconstitutional literacy tests, required to be eligible to vote. A library was also established by local activists with thousands of books donated from around the country. The library served black students who were denied access to the local public library.

Efforts are currently underway to acquire National Historic designation status for the building which is structurally sound, but is in need of immediate repairs and upgrades. These upgrades will comply with approved guidelines for the preservation of historic structures. Recently, the ASCMC initiated a GoFundMe campaign to address areas of building improvements such as painting, flooring, roof, lighting, heating/air,
bathroom/kitchen upgrades and handicapped access. That said, the ASCMC is seeking assistance from local carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and heating and air technicians to facilitate immediate use of the building. These much-needed improvements will allow the ASCMC to establish a footprint and make way for a permanent collection gallery for civil rights, colored hospital memorabilia/artifacts, and African American family history. An additional gallery will exhibit and promote the work of local and regional artists, combined with multi-purpose rooms for classes and additional oral history recordings. Local artists, writers, and educators will be encouraged to conduct youth-centered discussions and workshops. Summer activities will include an annual “Children’s Village” with creative programming designed to uplift, educate, and empower Americus youth to aspire to become leaders of their generation. Other initiatives will include an annual film festival and public forums that focus on civil and human rights, conflict resolution, reconciliation, and healing. Most importantly, the Center will continue collaborative programming with local
civic and business organizations, Georgia Southwestern State University, South Georgia Technical College, The Sumter Historic trust, The Jimmy Carter Historic Site, local NAACP/GAAAP Chapter, Sumter County Board of education, and local area high schools.

The GoFundMe campaign is an initiative jointly sponsored by the Federated Women’s Club and the ASCMC, Inc. to hopefully galvanize the Americus community to contribute to the cause of saving a historic structure that has served them for decades. Patrons are urged to contribute online at (https://www.gofundme.com/hi storic-building-rehab). Checks and money orders should be addressed to: ASCMC, Inc, 1219 Lafayette Street, Americus, Georgia 31719, or ASCMRC, Inc. P.O. Box 1383, Americus, Georgia 31709. The ASCMC is a 501©3 organization. For additional information, please contact us at (229) 928-0019 or (404) 781-5459.
Sam Mahone/Chairman