The Story Economy Blog

What if Hospitals Practiced Honest Storytelling About Their Histories of Segregation?


Colorful mural of civil rights leader John Lewis that says good trouble.

One of my clients is a hospital in Maryland that wants to be more honest about their history of racial segregation.

I learned this when I was working on creating a content strategy for them. I was part of a team interviewing various stakeholders at the hospital, including the diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders. Like so many hospitals in Maryland, and all over the country, this hospital had been a whites-only hospital. “We need to tell the truth about this,” one of the DEI leaders said.

Telling the truth can mean many different things for an organization. It can happen in speeches and marketing campaigns and on social media. But I specialize in strategizing around and writing web content. So that’s the place where I go.

And sure enough, when I looked at the hospital’s current “About” page, I found they had an extensive timeline. Seemingly every milestone had an entry with a specific date, from fires that destroyed wings to when the first knee replacement was performed. But there was no entry for when Black women were allowed into the maternity ward, or when Black physicians were finally granted privileges.

There was an entire history hidden in the shadows.

This hospital is not alone. The history of racial segregation is missing from most hospital “About Us” pages and timelines. I’ve spent months perusing hospital sites, and I can tell you, mentions of segregated history are rarely there.

In fact, I can show you exactly what I mean, looking just at the hospitals where I live in Cincinnati.

Hospitals Leave Out Details of Segregation on Website About Pages

My hospital is Bethesda North, which is part of the TriHealth system. I like my doctors, have always gotten excellent care, and feel like they have an above-average billing staff. (Every time I call, I get to talk to a real-life person who makes sure my questions are answered.) So this isn’t an axe-grinding exercise. They are simply one of about 1,000 examples.

On their About page, they tell the story of the minister who founded the precursor to the hospital. And the story of the German immigrant who was the first president. There are charming tidbits about the first building (a small house), how they ministered on foot, and the $55,000 price tag for the first real facility in 1898. There are plentiful details about mergers and emerging specialties and the changing nature of care.

Here's what’s not there, taken from this oral history about segregation in medicine (I added the bolding):

Dr. Ray E. Clarke, could treat patients in his own practice, but was unable to gain privileges at any of Cincinnati’s local hospitals during the 1920s, but through the help of friends in the medical field who verified his skills as a doctor he slowly gained these rights. In 1937 General Hospital finally allowed black doctors to serve as clinicians, and Clarke was allowed to perform surgery in a Cincinnati hospital. When he was admitted to the staff of General Hospital, he was also appointed to a faculty position in UC’s College of Medicine. Ironically, Clarke was unable to practice at Christ Hospital, Jewish Hospital, or Bethesda Hospital, but he oversaw medical students as an instructor in the surgery department in the College of Medicine and taught students who would be able to practice at those other hospitals upon graduation.

Bethesda’s quaint history seems a bit less charming now. Especially because it feels like something is being swept under the rug.

And the “General Hospital” mentioned above? That’s what eventually became the University of Cincinnati health system, or UC Health. The history Dr. Clarke was part of is also missing from their History page timeline. The Sabin oral polio vaccine in 1960 is an extremely important milestone. But finally breaking the color line in 1937? Seems just as important to me.

To their credit, health institutions sometimes have excellent blog posts, oral histories, and collateral material related to experiences of segregation. But these materials are typically deep within the sites. In the place where the masses of people go — the topline navigation pages — this history simply isn’t there.

So Why Don’t Hospitals Talk About Their Segregated Past?

Sometimes the history itself is difficult to track down.

“Most of the efforts to preserve Jim Crow practices in hospitals were never documented, and most of the few documents that ever existed have long since disappeared. There is no federal paper trail,” writes David Barton Smith, in the journal article, The Politics of Racial Disparities: Desegregating the Hospitals in Jackson, Mississippi. (Of course not a whiff of Mississippi Baptist’s segregated past is mentioned on their history page.)

Hospitals also don’t want to rehash the most embarrassing and shameful parts of their past. Their past actions, taken by people who are no longer involved in the running of the institution, run counter to the values they are about now. So why bring it up? Why not just focus on the present and the DEI initiatives and community engagement work these institutions are doing now?

On the other hand, coming clean about a dark period feels like an important step in healing and progress. Not to mention that it’s hard to get people to trust you when you bury facts. In fact, the reason the DEI leader on my call thought the hospital should tell an honest story about the past was that, as a member of the Black community, she knew firsthand there was still distrust in the Black community.

And finally, it’s hard to tackle inequity if you keep its history hidden. As Neel Shah, an assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School, says in an interview for a piece about the historical roots of racial disparities in health care, “Racial inequity shows up in every dimension of health care.”

The racial health gap we have today stems from all the policies that came before. How do we fix it if that conversation isn’t happening in the most public places?

How Do We Write These Honest Histories, and Who Should Participate?

I don’t have the full answer to this question yet. I am learning, too.

But one practice I’ve adopted is flagging timelines, and always asking: What history is being left out?

Also, when writing about eras rampant with segregation, resorting to “aw, shucks” charm is generally bad practice. The stories are an attempt to form emotional connection, but hinging the narratives on the “hardworking people who laid the groundwork” or the “history of caring that stretches back to our roots” can feel alienating to people who were, in fact, alienated for centuries.

Perhaps we need a practice for hospital About pages that follows the example of doing land acknowledgements, like this one from Southlake Regional Health Centre in Canada. (Many universities in the US also do land acknowledgements.)

It’s also important for people like me to listen to and be led by people who have lived experience of racism. But any content writer who works with hospitals should be asking these questions. It shouldn’t just fall to people who work in DEI.

After all, as Dr. Valerie E. Stone writes in her essay, White Coats for Black Lives: The Time Has Come for Action, “We must ensure that Black leaders alone aren't tasked with ‘fixing’ racism at academic medical centers. Black people did not create racism; thus, it is illogical to believe that we alone can devise and implement a plan to eliminate it. All of us, regardless of our race, must engage in and sustain this effort.”

All of us, especially the storytellers. Let’s tell more honest stories.

Photo by Robin Jonathan Deutsch on Unsplash.


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