When St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened its doors in Memphis on February 4, 1962, it made history as a hospital that would treat children with catastrophic diseases while also searching for cures — and for becoming the first fully integrated children’s hospital in the South.
From the first moment Danny Thomas began raising money to build a children’s hospital, his mission was to help all desperately ill boys and girls, regardless of a family’s race, religion or financial status. Segregation was common in the South, but Thomas held firm in his conviction that all children deserved a fighting chance.
African-American and white patients were treated in the same rooms, they dined together and bathroom facilities were integrated.
In most Southern hospitals, African-Americans, even those with university degrees, were normally employed in service areas. At St. Jude, they were hired as doctors, researchers and nurses.
During the 1960s, St. Jude also played a key role in the integration of hotels in Memphis. Arrangements were made with a downtown hotel to provide housing for patients. However, the hotel refused to allow the first African-American patients and their parents to register. Donald Pinkel, MD, the hospital’s director, issued an ultimatum. If the children and their parents could not stay in the hotel, then it would not be used for any St. Jude patient families. The hotel agreed to change its policy, provided that African-American families eat in their rooms instead of the dining facility. Again, Pinkel held firm, and the hotel management relented.
Through a lifetime of dedication and faith, Danny Thomas made sure that all children who suffered from cancer and deadly diseases would receive the treatment they needed at St. Jude. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded Danny Thomas the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest and most distinguished civilian award, for his humanitarian work.