The Booker T. Washington Veterans Hospital: A Segregation Debate From 70 Years Ago

About seventy years ago, in June 1951, Congress was considering the creation of a $5 million veteran’s hospital in Virginia at Booker T. Washington’s birthplace at Hale’s Ford, Virginia, that would presumably be named after him. This hospital would serve only black patients despite the Veterans Administration prohibiting segregation as a policy for hospitals, and there was only one veterans hospital at the time that was only for black people, down in Tuskegee, Alabama, that had been commissioned for World War I veterans in 1923. This proposal was put forth by none other than John E. Rankin of Mississippi, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Rankin was notorious as an outspoken racial and anti-Semitic bigot whose bigotry went so far as to be an embarrassment to many Southerners. There’s much more detail about Rankin, but his story is such that it warrants a separate posting.

The Debate

The debate on this measure to construct a segregated hospital despite the Veterans Administration having a non-segregation principle for new hospital construction had more issues than segregation being considered. These included practicality, costs, and the fact that the VA itself opposed the construction of this hospital. The breakdown of support and opposition in the debate is below.

Supported the Hospital:

File:House Veterans' committee leader and ranking republican member. Washington, D.C., Jan. 25. Rep. John E. Rankin, chairman of the House Veterans Committee and Edith Hourse Rogers, LCCN2016874894.jpg
John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) and Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.), pictured in 1939.

Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) – The ranking Republican on the committee denied it was a matter of segregation. She insisted that black people like their black doctors, but the term she used was “colored”. She stated her lifelong opposition to segregation, but thought the hospital was needed. Rogers was probably the most effective defender of the hospital’s construction given her record of supporting civil rights legislation. 

John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) – Contrasted funding this hospital with funding foreign aid to India under its socialist leader Jawaharal Nehru, defended need for hospital. He held that the measure already passed in the 80th and 81st Congresses and defended hospital distance by talking about the Tuskegee veterans hospital. Rankin also accused the NAACP of being Communist-infested while holding that the Booker T. Washington Foundation, which was calling for this hospital, was not and bristled at criticism of segregation. He declared the desegregation of the Armed Services as Stalin’s greatest victory since Yalta.

Paul W. Shafer (R-Mich.) – Although he stated that a hospital in Michigan had yet to be opened and asked whether black veterans (who he called “colored boys”) could go up there. Ultimately voted against killing the measure.

J. Percy Priest (D-Tenn.) – Although he argued that a hospital would be better near Nashville because of the all-black Meharry Medical College there, he ultimately voted against killing the measure.

James S. Golden (R-Ky.) – He thought that many black veterans in the area wanted the hospital.

Orland K. Armstrong (R-Mo.) – Armstrong voiced that he didn’t support furthering segregation but regarded the hospital as necessary given how many veterans hospitals there were existing that were serving primarily the white population.

John T. Wood (R-Idaho) – Questioned the questioning of distance from medical schools, holding that close proximity was only good for access to medical consultants.

Opposed the Hospital:

Leo Allen (R-Ill.) – Cited cost of the hospital of $5 million as questionable.

James Auchincloss (R-N.J.) – Questioned cost of the hospital.

Edgar Jonas (R-Ill.) – Questioned the distance from medical schools, practicality of the hospital.

Roy Wier (D-Minn.) – Questioned whether this would constitute “pork”.

Abraham Multer (D-N.Y.) – Questioned the segregated nature of the hospital.

H. Carl Andersen (R-Minn.) – Questioned the practicality of having an all-black hospital over 200 miles away from the Meharry Medical College (which taught black medical students) in Nashville, thought that a veterans hospital should be located closer to Nashville.

John Rooney (D-N.Y.) – Stated that Veterans Administration opposed this hospital.

Marguerite Church (R-Ill.) – Voiced opposition because the hospital would serve only blacks and thus further segregation.

Kenneth Keating (R-N.Y.) – Explicitly stated that the adoption of this measure would serve to officially give a federal stamp of approval to segregation.

Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) – Regarded the measure as turning back the clock to segregation.

James Devereux (R-Md.) – Voiced opposition to this legislation as “class legislation”. His objection and those of Adam Clayton Powell and William Dawson seemed to turn the debate decisively against the hospital. 

William L. Dawson (D-Ill.) – One of only two black members of the House, opposed the legislation as “class legislation”, questioned need and practicality of the hospital.

William L. Dawson.jpg
William L. Dawson, D-Ill.

Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) – One of only two black members of the House, opposed the legislation for forwarding segregation, cited the opposition of 27 civil rights organizations, and questioned the practicality of the hospital. Motioned to strike the enacting clause.

Adam Clayton Powell, D-N.Y.

Thomas B. Curtis (R-Mo.) – Agreed with the “class legislation” assessment, cited the NAACP’s opposition, and disputed the practicality and cost of the hospital.

Isidore Dollinger (D-N.Y.) – Referred to segregation as a “disease”.

James Fulton (R-Penn.) – Asked if this hospital would serve to discriminate against whites and not be permitted to admit any in the case of emergency.

Arthur Miller (R-Neb.) – Asked rhetorically if there was any difference between illnesses of blacks and whites.

Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) – Condemned the segregated nature of the hospital, regarded it as cruel that a segregated hospital would bear Washington’s name, and cited Rankin’s personal racism as a reason to oppose.

Hugh Scott (R-Penn.) – Spoke against cost, practicality, and of its segregated nature. Asked rhetorically if hospitals were needed for people of different nationalities and faiths.

Wayne Hays (D-Ohio) – Questioned the practicality of a hospital so far away from black medical colleges.

James Van Zandt (R-Penn.) – Questioned practicality given the fact that there were veterans hospitals closing down.

Ultimately, Powell motioned to strike the enacting clause and this was passed on a 223-117 (D 89-84; R 133-33; I 1-0) vote on June 6th, killing the proposal for the session. The breakdown of the vote went as follows, accompanied with MC-Index scores for the 82nd session of Congress. Republicans are in bold italics, Democrats in plain text.

Note: Congressional Quarterly and Americans for Democratic Action 1951 voting record indicate that Representative Morano (R-Conn.) was opposed to killing the hospital.

Rankin didn’t get an opportunity to reintroduce it in the next Congress as he was defeated for renomination in 1952. Two years later, Brown v. Board of Education, the culmination of a gradual series of Supreme Court rulings chipping away at segregation, found school segregation unconstitutional.

References

ADA World Congressional Supplement. (October 1951). Americans for Democratic Action.

Retrieved from

“Commemorative Veterans’ Hospital For Negro Veterans.” Congressional Record 97:5 (June 6, 1951) p. 6191-6203.

Retrieved from

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