The Creation And Cultural Significance Of The Barnett Hospital


Rikki Miller

The Barnett Hospital and Nursing School, located in Huntington, West Virginia, provided quality healthcare and educational opportunities for African-American physicians and nurses from 1912 to 1930. The presence of an African-American hospital ensured that Huntington-area blacks would be treated with dignity and given proper care and education. The establishment of this institution also demonstrated the black response to exclusion and discrimination from white hospitals and medical schools. Although some African Americans argued that such institutions only further promoted segregation, individuals such as Dr. C.C. Barnett, the hospital’s founder, believed that black Americans needed to help themselves, rather than simply waiting for equal opportunities that might not come to fruition. The establishment of the Barnett Hospital in a city with five preexisting hospitals attests to the racism and segregation Huntington-area African Americans experienced in the healthcare process. Driven by this segregation and exclusion, Dr. Barnett founded the Barnett Hospital and Nursing School to fill a void in African-American healthcare and education.  In time, the Barnett Hospital provided new opportunities for members of the African-American community and became the leading symbol of black pride and independence in Huntington.

Recognizing the racial discrimination against African-American physicians, nurses, and patients, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams opened the nation’s first black-operated hospital—Chicago’s Provident Hospital and Nurse Training School. In 1900 he encouraged the black community to create hospitals for themselves. Ten years later, the Journal of the National Medical Association (JNMA) reiterated the same proposal: “In every community where possible, a hospital should be erected.” Perhaps the urgent request by the JNMA stemmed from the report by the Committee of Medical Education on Colored Hospitals, which emphasized the lack of black hospitals in the United States. Although the article reported seventeen hospitals under African-American management, only fifteen institutions were listed by the General Secretary under Colored Hospitals. African Americans hastily responded to these proposals for the establishment of black hospitals. Between 1912 and 1919, the number of black hospitals had increased from 63 to 118.1

African-American physicians recognized the necessity of opening their own hospitals. Their careers as well as the health of the black community depended on their ability to adapt to medical advancements.  However, these physicians were not always supported by the African-American community. Some African Americans argued that the formation of separate institutions was self-imposed segregation.2 In fact, in 1930, organizers of black hospitals continued to be criticized as enemies of the race because they were encouraging segregation.3 Supporters of African-American hospitals, on the other hand, believed that the hospitals demonstrated the strength of the community in the midst of segregation. As one physician clearly expressed, “If they don’t make a place for us, we should make a place for ourselves.”4 Dr. C.C. Barnett agreed that he should make a place for his people after hearing of a tragedy involving the death of the black miner, Walter Brown, who fell from a train at the Chesapeake and Ohio rail yard. After being denied medical care by the Chesapeake and Ohio Hospital, Brown lay on the ground for hours until he was admitted to the Kessler Hospital. However, the miner died on the operating table because he had been left untreated for too long.5

According to Dr. Ancella Bickley, a Huntington native, “Perhaps the most ambitious effort undertaken by Huntington blacks during the early part of the century was the development of a hospital—spearheaded by Dr. C.C. Barnett.”6 Before the foundation of the Barnett Hospital, African Americans were either denied access to hospitals or they were placed in segregated wards—environments that did not promote recovery.7 Additionally, these patients were assigned white doctors because black doctors did not have admitting rights to these segregated hospitals. Through the creation of the Barnett Hospital, Dr. C.C. Barnett ensured that African Americans, unlike Walter Brown, would be properly cared for throughout the entirety of the healthcare process.

A year after its establishment in 1913, the Savannah Tribune touted the Barnett Hospital as the most modern private hospital in Huntington, West Virginia.8 Carter G. Woodson, Barnett’s first cousin, reported that the hospital had fifty beds, two operating rooms with modern equipment, and an X-ray department.9 As a result, African Americans seeking major operations chose the Barnett Hospital as their primary care center. Professor Eph Williams, a national race leader and the entrepreneur of the Silas Green Company, sent his wife and daughter to Huntington to be treated by Dr. Barnett.10 The Barnett Hospital’s accomplishments were also recognized by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and the War Risk Insurance Bureau, both of which hired Dr. Barnett to treat certain employees.

In addition to these businesses, which acknowledged the expertise of Dr. C.C. Barnett, other African-American physicians throughout the nation recognized the success of Dr. Barnett and his hospital. The JNMA reported that,

[A] number of surgeons who have had training in some of the great hospitals of this country and                                   Europe, have started excellent private hospitals, where they not only have an opportunity to gain                                  experience from the wealth of clinical material, but it gives the colored people a chance to get                                             expert treatment from surgeons and clinicians of their own race. [A] brilliant example of this [is]                                              Dr. CC. Barnett, Huntington. 11

The Barnett Hospital was widely regarded by its contemporaries as being well-equipped and serving an enormous healthcare need for Huntington-area African Americans. In addition to the National Medical Association, the West Virginia Medical Association recognized Barnett’s administrative achievements and elected him to present a paper titled “Hospital Administration and Administrator” at their annual session in 1922.12

Dr. Barnett’s desire to provide quality medical treatment to the black community attests to his determination to improve the lives of these citizens medically and socially. The success of the Barnett Hospital is evidenced in an article published in 1916, which reported that only two out of two hundred patients died during operations at the institution.13 This article emphasizes the successful utilization of modern surgical and sterilization techniques, as well as the adequate post-surgical care provided by the nurses. Because of these advancements, the hospital became a place the African-American community could depend on for excellent healthcare. Moreover, due to these achievements, the hospital became the leading symbol of black pride in Huntington.

In addition to providing healthcare for African Americans, the Barnett Hospital also offered educational opportunities to the community through the development of a nursing school. The marriage of C.C. Barnett to Clara Matthews in 1912 initiated the development of a nursing school within the hospital. According to Darlene Hine, author of Black Women in White, “If black women were to become trained nurses, the black community had to create the requisite institutions to provide training.”14The nursing school, which opened six years later in 1918 as a part of the Barnett Hospital, was the only extant form of higher education in Huntington for blacks.15 In fact, because many nursing schools did not accept African Americans, the Barnett Hospital attracted African Americans from all over the country. Accordingly, the Barnett Hospital and Nursing School had a nationwide impact on African-American medical education.

Although women’s efforts are often overshadowed by the achievements of male physicians within the “Black Hospital Movement,” they played an important role in the establishment of these institutions as well. These women were responsible for leading fundraising campaigns for the institutions and for running hospital nurse-training programs.16 In addition to organizing the nursing school, Clara Matthews Barnett served as superintendent of the hospital.17 Although most African-American women at this time were denied opportunities to occupy administrative positions, Clara Barnett utilized this power to provide an opportunity for African Americans to become educated. Both Dr. and Mrs. Barnett were dedicated to providing educational opportunities and proper healthcare for the black community. Their efforts resulted in accreditation of the Barnett Hospital’s nursing school by the National Medical Association. This was an honor rarely awarded to African-American nursing schools of the time.18

Excellence in medical education provided by the Barnett Hospital was not limited to the training of nurses. The Barnett Hospital also offered internships for African-American doctors.19 At this time, medical school graduates were not required to complete internships or residencies in order to become physicians; however, black physicians understood the significance hospitals played in their professions. Hospitals, like Barnett’s, provided physicians the opportunity to learn emerging surgical techniques and operate modern technology, which ultimately increased the reputations of these physicians. In providing an opportunity for internships, the Barnett Hospital was more advanced than other black hospitals throughout the country. Only six internship programs were available to medical school graduates out of the 202 black hospitals that were established at this time.20 The physicians who served their internships at the Barnett Hospital became respected physicians at the Tuskegee Institute and also in Boston, Massachusetts.21

In addition to the nurse-training program and internships, the Barnett Hospital also provided surgical clinics for the annual meetings of the West Virginia branch of the National Medical Society.22 Twelve operations were performed at the Barnett Hospital during the June 1915 meeting of the West Virginia Medical Association. Freeman, an African-American newspaper, touted the success of these clinics noting, “Not a single fatality occurred, which shows, not only the dexterity of the operators, but also the careful nursing and after treatment [of the patients].”23 Six years later, at the Twelfth Annual Session of the West Virginia State Medical Society, the surgical clinics were again held at the Barnett Hospital.24 The fact that these surgical clinics were held at the Barnett hospital attests to Dr. Barnett’s continued dedication to African-American education. These clinics also speak to the Barnett Hospital’s utilization of modern equipment to provide quality healthcare to the black community.

Barnett’s leadership within the community coupled with his desire to serve African Americans continued throughout his life as he persuaded influential West Virginians to establish an institution for mentally-ill African Americans. In 1919, T.G. Nutter, a member of the House of Delegates, introduced a bill calling for the creation and management of such an institution.25 Nutter’s bill became a law, and the State Board of Control purchased land in Mason County for the creation of Lakin, a state-funded hospital for mentally-ill African Americans. Although he was not an applicant for the position, Dr. Barnett was selected as superintendent by Governor Howard M. Gore based on his merits, which included the successful establishment of an African-American hospital and nursing school.26 However, Dr. Barnett never intended to serve as the superintendent of the institution due to his responsibilities in Huntington. He declined Gore’s proposal, offering to train another physician for the position. State officials once again requested that Barnett consider the position, and, after Governor Gore traveled to Huntington and personally urged him to become superintendent, Dr. Barnett finally agreed to fill the position.27

Both the establishment of Lakin and Dr. Barnett’s role as superintendent received national attention. It was the first state-funded institution in the United States founded solely for the treatment of mentally-ill African-American patients. The hospital was also staffed entirely by African Americans. Dr. Barnett’s position as superintendent of Lakin Hospital and his contributions to the black community received national recognition.28 The JNMA cites Governor Gore’s appointment of an African-American superintendent as evidence of his appreciation for the education of blacks in West Virginia. The article continues to boast West Virginia’s responsive attitude to the needs of the black community by noting: “This appointment is something entirely new in the way of opportunities for Negro physicians, and is one that ought to prove of immense benefit; for the potential possibilities of such an institution are greater than one can imagine.”29

Dr. C.C. Barnett’s dedication to the treatment and education of African Americans persisted throughout his administration at Lakin. Barnett believed that placing mentally-ill African-American patients in their own institutions would guarantee better treatment by black physicians and nurses.30 Dr. Barnett’s administrative success also continued at Lakin, which was honored as the first psychopathic hospital of the state to qualify for the approved rating of the American Medical Association. Providing a separate institution for the treatment of the African-American mentally-ill provided an opportunity for black physicians, interns, and nurses to study psychiatry—a specialty rarely practiced by African Americans at this time.31

Once Dr. Barnett assumed his position as superintendent of Lakin, Dr. L. H. Harper, a graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, was chosen as the administrator of the Barnett Hospital.32 However, in 1930, the hospital was leased to the City of Huntington for the establishment of the City Hospital. In the following years, Dr. Barnett lost the Barnett Hospital to the mortgage company due to the declining national economy. During the Depression, the hospital continued to be utilized by community members as the only form of healthcare many Huntington citizens had. It served the medical needs of both African Americans and impoverished whites as well. As Karen Nance notes, “Opal Mills, [a white, Cabell County resident], went there and [had] her teeth fixed. They had a dentist in the building, as well as [physicians] taking care of surgical needs, pregnancies, [and the] hospitalization of patients.” On August, 24, 1939, despite donations from churches and community leaders, the newspaper announced that the City Hospital was closing due to financial difficulties.33

The original Barnett Hospital was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in December of 2009 by Karen Nance, who, along with her husband, purchased the property in 2008. Currently, Johnny and Karen Nance are applying for historic preservation tax credits, which will be used to continue the restoration of the hospital. The couple plans to renovate the first floor of the hospital, adding three units of housing available to the Huntington community. According to Karen Nance,

It is important to preserve the building because it is a heritage site. The hospital allows us to experience and understand our heritage. African Americans were segregated from the white population in inadequate hospital wards. Dr. Barnett and others like him rose up and founded black hospitals that countered this injustice. The Barnett Hospital represents a need met by self-help by the African-American community. As long as this building stands, the story of African-American doctors’ struggle for equality in medicine can be told and experienced.34

Although five hospitals existed in Huntington previous to the Barnett Hospital and Nursing School’s establishment, African Americans could not depend on these institutions to provide them proper care. Often, these hospitals even denied African Americans critical care. Through the creation of an African-American Hospital, Dr. Barnett provided both healthcare and educational opportunities for black citizens living during segregation. The nursing school, in addition to Dr. Barnett’s willingness to train interns and other physicians, offered African Americans the chance to become educated instead of falling behind their white professional counterparts. This increase in educational opportunities also contributed to the development of the African-American middle class in Huntington. Dr. Barnett provided quality healthcare in a city where ‘separate, but equal’ did not exist. During a time of black segregation and exclusion from white hospitals, the establishment of a successful African-American hospital served as a source of racial pride and demonstrated African-American independence in Huntington.

1 Vanessa Northington Gamble, Making a Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3, 238; Report of Committee on Medical Education on Colored Hospitals,” Journal of the National Medical Association 2, no. 4 (1910): 290.

2 Gamble, Making a Place for Ourselves, xvi.

3 “Some Significant Negro Movements,” Journal of the National Medical Association 22, no. 2 (1930): 87.

4 Gamble, Making a Place for Ourselves, xvi.

5 “Negro Died from Neglect,” The Huntington Herald Dispatch (Huntington, WV), August 10, 1909.

6 Ancella Radford Bickley, “Black People and the Huntington Experience,” Honoring our Past: Proceedings of the First Two Conferences on West Virginia’s Black History, eds., Joe William Trotter, Jr. and Ancella Radford Bickley (n.p., 1991), Morrow Library, Marshall University, Huntington, WV, 147.

7 Gamble, Making a Place for Ourselves, 6.

8 According to the 1913-1914 edition of R. L. Polk & Co.’s Huntington Directory, the following hospitals are listed (under “Hospitals and Asylums”): the Barnett Hospital, the Chesapeake & Ohio Hospital, the Guthrie Hospital, the Huntington Hospital, the Kessler Hospital, and the Mt. Hope Hospital. Although the directory does not indicate whether these hospitals were private or public at this time, the 1915 directory lists the hospital “Huntington General Hospital,” instead of “Huntington Hospital,” indicating its role as a public hospital of Huntington. Thus, the Barnett Hospital was considered more “thoroughly modern” than any of the above private hospitals, none of which were under “black-control” except the Barnett Hospital. See “Huntington City Directory, 1913,” Karen Nance’s personal collection, hitherto referred to as Karen Nance Papers; “Notes on Negro Business Progress,” Savannah Tribune (Savannah, GA), August 23, 1913.

9 Carter G. Woodson, A Historical Reader, ed. James L. Conyers (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000), 129.

10 Prof. Eph. Williams “owned” and “managed” the Silas Green Company, which according to Freeman, was the “largest, best, and most prominently known of all the colored amusement enterprises that travel the Southland.” See “Prof. Eph Williams’ Famous Troubadours,” Freeman (Indianapolis, IN), September 26, 1914; “Huntington, WV: an Ideal City with a Population of 50,000 with a Colored Population,” Freeman (Indianapolis, IN), August 8, 1912.

11 The physicians recognized by the National Medical Association included: “Dr. J. Edward Perry, of Kansas City; Dr. R. M. Hendrick, Gary; Dr. A. M. Curtis, Washington; Dr. C.C. Barnett, Huntington; Dr. U. Grant Dailey of Chicago; and Dr. John A. Kenny, of Newark, who was formerly surgeon-in-chief of John A. Andrew Hospital, Tuskegee.” See “Some Significant Negro Movements,” Journal of the National Medical Association 22, no. 2 (1930): 87.

12 “Society and Personal,” Journal of the National Medical Association 14, no. 3 (1922): 187.

13 “Huntington, WV: an Ideal City with a Population of 50,000 with a Colored Population,” Freeman (Indianapolis, IN), August 8, 1912.

14 Darlene Clark Hine, Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), xvii.

15 Bickley, “Black People and the Huntington Experience,” 147.

16 Gamble, Making a Place for Ourselves, xiv.

17 Karen Nance Papers.

18 Hine, Black Women in White, 202.

19 Woodson, A Historical Reader, 129.

20 Gamble, Making a Place for Ourselves, 11, 42.

21 “Dr. Barnett is Taken by Death,” Herald Dispatch (Huntington, WV), December 30, 1935.

22 “Items of Interest,” Journal of the National Medical Association 4, no. 3 (1912): 278.

23 “Huntington, WV: an Ideal City with a Population of 50,000 with a Colored Population,” Freeman (Indianapolis, IN), August 8, 1912.

24 “Society and Personal,” Journal of the National Medical Association 10, no. 3 (1918): 142.

25 Ibid.

26 “Dr. C.C. Barnett to Head Hospital for Negro Insane,” Herald Dispatch (Huntington, WV), August 13, 1925.

27 Woodson, A Historical Reader, 131.

28 “Society and Personal,” Journal of the National Medical Association 17, no. 4 (1925): 251.

29 Ibid., 210.

30 Woodson, A Historical Reader, 130.

31 Ibid.;“Dr. Barnett is Taken by Death,” Herald Dispatch (Huntington, WV), December 30, 1935.

32 “Dr. C.C. Barnett to Head Hospital for Negro Insane,” Herald Dispatch (Huntington, WV), August 13, 1925.

33 Karen Nance Papers; Karen Nance, Interview with the Author, March 2011.

34 Karen Nance in discussion with the author, March 2011.