Brooks Memorial Hospital: Groundbreaking in architecture, service

Photo provided

Brooks Memorial Hospital had a well-equipped examination room for the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

At Second and Virginia, on the northeast corner, there is a rambling stone structure which is familiar to all of us -- but what do we really know about it?

The story begins with Peter Postel, an African American, who owned a grocery at the corner of Sixth and Virginia -- in the building that burned two years ago this month. In fact, Mr. Postel owned the whole building and rented out the spaces in this two-story structure that were not taken up by his grocery. At the time of his death in 1901, Mr. Postel's estate was valued at $125,000. In anyone's book, he was quite a wealthy man at the beginning of the 20th century.

Of his 11 children, only Peter Postel Jr. remained in Hopkinsville -- and ran the grocery. His wife Fannie, the main breadwinner, taught at Attucks High School and later served as its principal from 1927 until 1934.

In the teens, Peter and Fannie built a house that is the core of the building we see today. In fact, the outline of the original house is easily identified from the facade. The stone-covered addition of wings at the rear and left of the main house join the original building in the rear section, and the stone is applied to the south wall of the main house -- that visually becomes one with the stone front porch addition.

The Postels lived in this house until Peter died, and Fannie continued to live there until the property was sold and transformed into a hospital beginning in 1941.

Our focus now shifts to Phillip C. Brooks, the man behind the hospital project. Born in Hopkinsville and a graduate of Attucks, Dr. Brooks went to Washington, D.C., where he obtained a BS degree from Howard University. After continuing on to get his MD degree from Howard University Medical School, he came home to Hopkinsville in the 1920s to set up his practice.

Until after the Civil War, hospitals, as we know them today, did not exist at all. Additionally, it is difficult for 21st-century minds to wrap themselves around the concept that until after the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, American hospitals were -- for the most part -- segregated. What this meant for most African Americans at the time was that (unlike the school systems, which did at least provide some form of education for blacks -- which was hardly separate but equal) there were no hospitals for them at all. During this period, Dr. Brooks had a number of indigent white patients, who could not afford to go to Jennie Stuart.

The 1941 Brooks Memorial Hospital was a groundbreaking enterprise both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, it was basically built -- save for the stonemasons' work -- by Dr. Brooks himself. In the more important sense, it was the first hospital facility for African Americans in Christian County. It was finished and opened in 1944 during World War II. The timing is significant because it coincided with the influx of African American soldiers at Fort Campbell during the war -- providing for them services that would have been otherwise unavailable in the area. Brooks Memorial Hospital operated from 1944 until 1977, when Jennie Stuart first admitted African American patients. After that Dr. Brooks became a member of the medical staff and Jennie Stuart.

It is a testament to the reputation of Dr. Brooks that he was able to raise the money to build the hospital during the war years. A closer look tells us that Dr. Brooks was first in his class at Howard University Medical School in 1927. He was the first African American to be elected to the Hopkinsville Board of Education, and served there from 1963 until 1972.

Active in civic and religious affairs, he was a member of the Vestry at Grace Episcopal Church and a lay reader. Perhaps most impressive of all was his being voted General Practitioner of the Year in 1975 by the National Medical Association.

Before and after 1944, the identifiable house in this complex was used as a house, while the "L" shaped addition served as the 30-bed hospital.

The complex is still in the family today.

From the collection of William Turner, we are fortunate to have surviving pictures of the interior -- showing the reception room, a large examining room, the operating room and a typical patient bedroom.

We are even more fortunate to have the hospital itself, as a living memorial to the efforts of Dr. Phillip C. Brooks to bring to the African American residents of Christian County in the mid-20th century "separate but equal" medical care. This nationally recognized local doctor came a long way to doing just that -- in a facility that he almost literally built himself.

Join us in August as we cross county lines for moral purposes, and take a close look at Elkton's Milliken Memorial Community House.

James B. Coursey's Hiding in Plain Sight column appears monthly in the Kentucky New Era. His column is researched jointly with County Historian William T. Turner. Reach James B. Coursey at 270-719-9462 or email him at jbcourseydesign@gmail.com.

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