‘The Power to Heal’ sheds light on fight for desegregation, equal access to health care in hospitals

Film still from “The Power to Heal: Medicare and the Civil Rights Revolution,” which was screened at the Larrick Student Center on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Brandon Burnesson.

Jiana Smith, Contributing Writer

Chief of Health Impact at VCU Health Sheryl Garland recounted VCU’s legacy of segregated health care during the discussion of the film “The Power to Heal” at the Larrick Student Center on Thursday evening.  

“In the Kontos Building, there is an archway for St. Philip Hospital,” Garland said. “My parents were born at St. Philip Hospital because it was the hospital where black babies were born.” 

MCV’s St. Philip Hospital also trained African American nurses who were barred from attending the School of Nursing due to segregation. 

“The Power to Heal: Medicare and the Civil Rights Revolution” is a documentary produced by public health scholar Barbara Berney. Based on the book by David Barton Smith, the film explores the decadeslong fight for desegregation in hospitals and equal access to health care. 

The documentary unearths the often-overlooked story of civil rights activists such as Dorothy Ferebee, Dr. W. Montague Cobb and Dr. George Simkins. 

“Having intentional and out-loud conversations about institutional racism and a specific institution and what it means for our local history is important.” — VCU Health senior project manager Jennifer Early. 

In one particularly moving scene, Dr. Brenda Armstrong of Durham, North Carolina, describes her mother’s labor and the hospital’s refusal to attend to her as her first encounter with medical racism. 

“In our town, we could not use the hospital,” Armstrong said. “For her final pregnancy, my mom was going to need a C-section — the baby was big.” 

“She went into labor. They couldn’t get her to the colored ward, they delivered at home,” Armstrong continued, tearing up. “My brother sustained a stroke because of it.” 

This incident, which would inspire Armstrong to become a physician, was only one of many stories in the film that highlighted the damaging effects of the segregated health care system in the U.S. 

According to the 2018 film, prior to landmark Medicare legislation in 1965, African Americans were often disrespected by health care professionals. Ambulances refused to take them to hospitals, and if they made it to the emergency room, they faced the possibility of being turned away. 

Some black doctors started hospitals for their communities in response to these conditions, but often did not have the funds to maintain them. Aspiring black physicians also faced problems receiving training and practicing medicine due to segregation. 

Still, these circumstances could not stop them. Barred from the American Medical Association, black physicians formed the National Medical Association and fought for their right to receive and practice medical care. 

The efforts of these physicians were recognized by government officials such as Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson would eventually sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare and provided an incentive for hospitals to integrate. 

After the film, many audience members said that they weren’t aware of the history of medical segregation before watching the documentary. 

“Having intentional and out-loud conversations about institutional racism and a specific institution and what it means for our local history is important,” said VCU Health senior project manager Jennifer Early. 

“The Power To Heal” was shown as a part of this year’s “Real Life Film series,” which is hosted by the Tompkins-McCaw Library of the Health Sciences. It is the fourth film in the series to be shown this academic year. 

“We started the Real Life Film series to raise awareness of the fact that we have all these great DVDs and films and streaming services available at VCU,” said Deputy Director of Tompkins-McCaw Library Emily J. Hurst. “Having speakers like Sheryl or graduate students come and talk about their experiences has been really great for the people that are in attendance.”‌

“The Power to Heal” is available for checkout at the Tompkins-McCaw Library.

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