He was a son of sharecroppers, sick with a mysterious ailment. This was 1967, in the segregated South, and so when Cedric’s mother rushed the 2-year-old to a local Mississippi clinic, they entered through the door marked “Colored.”
But Cedric’s mother had more pressing concerns than the everyday indignities of the time. Her little boy was suffering from sharp stomach pains and had a hardness in his abdomen.
“This is a sick baby,” the doctor said.
Too sick for the doctor to cure at the local clinic, but he knew a place that might be able to help.
A place where Cedric and his mother could enter through the front door.
A place built not just on the idea of finding cures for children with catastrophic illnesses, but the ideal that all people should be treated with dignity, regardless of their race, religion or economic station.
A place called St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the South’s first fully integrated children's hospital and open just five years at the time.
The story of Cedric McCollins — surviving kidney cancer, now thriving in his second-chance life as a husband and father with a decades-long career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta — is in many ways the story of St. Jude.
Our founder, Danny Thomas, wanted to build an institution that would break down both scientific and social barriers.
Consider the South — and the America — in which St. Jude opened its doors in 1962. Hotels throughout the South were segregated, affecting African-American families in need of a place to stay while traveling for their child’s treatment.
Then, as now, St. Jude had a fundamental founding principle to accept patients of all races, creeds and ethnicities, so Danny and Dr. Donald Pinkel, the first medical director of St. Jude, went to the hotels to tell management they would accept all St. Jude patients or they would not have any.
Hotel after hotel acquiesced with the caveat that their black guests not eat in the hotel restaurant, but in their rooms. Again, Danny and Dr. Pinkel said all or nothing.
It was during this time Melvin Charles Smith, now the longtime pastor of Mt. Moriah-East Baptist Church in Memphis, came to work at St. Jude, sterilizing the glassware and tools scientists would use in their research.
St. Jude had been open seven months and Smith, just 22 years old at the time, has said it was the only place a black man could go to work, wear a tie and be called “sir.”
Growing up in Memphis, he’d experienced prejudice and segregation first-hand, forced to the balcony of movie theaters and prohibited from eating in most restaurants.
But St. Jude, Smith said, “was an open door to a greater world. It said to me, ‘Your dreams can be realized, opportunities are going to come.’ If you’re able to go through this door, how many more doors will you be able to go through?”
The way to a greater world was through a star-shaped building designed by Paul R. Williams, a noted African-American architect from Los Angeles who had built homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Danny himself.
Though wildly successful and revered, Williams was not allowed to enter many of the buildings he designed and yet his progressive imagining of St. Jude showed integrated restrooms and common areas, and featured a cafeteria where everyone — doctors, nurses, staff, patients, black, white — would sit and share a meal together.
The very shape of the star is the symbol of namesake St. Jude Thaddeus and a unifying symbol in the Arab culture, a fact Williams said he was unaware of at the time.
Danny would refer to the coincidence as “…the hand of God pushing Williams' pencil."
The unifying mission to find cures and save children, symbolized by Williams’ five-point star and carried today in the hearts of millions of supporters around the globe, ties us together in these most divisive of times.
A commitment to equality is one we at ALSAC and St. Jude still hold precious today, as we do our legacy of lives saved while making life better for all.
In the spirit and strength of our founders, we continue to strive every day to ensure an inclusive environment where men and women like Rev. Melvin Smith and Cedric McCollins can not only find the work and care they need, but the dignity they deserve.
Help our families focus on their sick child, not medical bills.
When you donate, your gift means families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.