St. Jude in the civil rights era
From the first moment Danny Thomas began raising money in the 1950s to build a children’s hospital, his mission was to help all desperately ill boys and girls, regardless of a family’s religion, financial status or race. Segregation was common practice in the South, but Danny held firm in his conviction that all children, no matter their background, deserved a fighting chance.
When St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened its doors on February 4, 1962, it was the first fully integrated children’s hospital in the South. African-American and white patients were treated in the same rooms; they dined together; and bathroom facilities were integrated.
In most Southern hospitals, African-American personnel, even those with university degrees, were normally employed in service areas. At St. Jude, they were hired as doctors, researchers and nurses delivering world-class care to the hospital’s first patients.
Even though there was still discrimination in the South, it was not going to be permitted at St. Jude. Lemuel Diggs, MD, an original member of the St. Jude Board of Governors, wrote: “In my opinion, the St. Jude Hospital should be supported by people of all races, and we should never allow the segregation problem to interfere with our more important aims. Today, a son of one of the technicians in my laboratory died of leukemia after an illness which financially wrecked their family, as well as causing mental and physical strain on members of the family. … It is for such a disease that St. Jude Hospital is being built. The petty matters of race pale into unimportance in the face of catastrophes of this type.”
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, Dr. Pinkel held firm, and the hotel management relented.
Through a lifetime of dedication and faith, Danny made sure that children who suffered from cancer and other deadly diseases would receive the treatment they needed. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded Danny the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest and most distinguished civilian award, for the humanitarian work he did on behalf of children everywhere.