History unveiled in Appalachia

SWAP land home of former Dismukes Hospital and Nurses' Home

This mystery building, and the adjacent land, was the site of Henrietta Dismukes Hospital and Nurses’ Home, one of the largest privately owned African American hospitals in the country.

When Kristin Overstreet first visited Kimball, West Virginia, in February 2020 in her new role as Appalachia program coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Great Lakes, she didn’t realize she was stumbling into forgotten history.

Overstreet, a former history teacher, found that land recently purchased for MCC’s Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP) program once held the Henrietta Dismukes Hospital and Nurses’ Home, one of the largest privately owned African American hospitals in the country at the time.

Dr. Henry Dodford Dismukes, an African American physician and surgeon, founded the hospital in 1930. Named for his mother, it served African American patients in the region until 1932. 

The hospital was remarkable for its time including all the latest technology, 50 beds for patients and five nurses that resided in the nurses’ home. However, the founding and then closing of the hospital only two years later has not been widely told. 

Research shows that Dr. Dismukes was approached by Bluefield Sanitarium, a white hospital in nearby Bluefield, that contracted with him to pay $3.50 per day to treat every African American person who was sent to Henrietta Dismukes Hospital. Bluefield Sanitarium was not willing to treat persons of color long term, so they wanted to be able to send those patients elsewhere if their condition required. Many of these patients were injured in accidents in the coal mines. 

However, as patients were sent from Bluefield Sanitarium to Dismukes Hospital, Dr.  Dismukes received none of the promised payments.

Dr. Dismukes filed a lawsuit against Bluefield Sanitarium for breach of contract for $150,000, marking the largest suit by an African American filed against a white corporation at that time (The Pittsburgh Courier, 21 Feb. 1931). 

Dr. Dismukes did not win the state Supreme Court case, but he was allowed $4,070 in damages by the lower court. His appeals for additional funds were not granted (Bluefield Daily Telegraph, 4 April 1931).

This financial strain, coupled with the onset of the Great Depression, led to the hospital’s permanent closure in 1932.

Overstreet first became curious about the history of an old building that she later found was the Nurses’ Home. Local residents referred to the area as the old Bralley Apartments, but there was speculation that it once served as a hospital. However, the name of the hospital and any details related to its historical context were unknown until Overstreet began her research.

MCC had signed the deed to purchase the land in December 2019 for use with the Kimball site location of SWAP, MCC’s home repair program. By the time SWAP acquired the land, the building that was once a hospital, and later apartment complex, had burned down. The building that remains today had served as the nurses’ home, a residence for nurses who worked at the hospital.

Prior to founding the Dismukes Hospital, Dr. Dismukes was head of the surgical team at Harrison Memorial Hospital, noted to be the first privately owned African American Hospital in the state of West Virginia. Dr. Roscoe Conklin Harrison founded the hospital in 1908 when he was refused privileges to practice medicine in neighboring white hospitals due to segregation laws.

“As an organization committed to anti-racism, MCC Great Lakes holds this story as a sacred trust,” said Eric Kurtz, MCC Great Lakes executive director. “We celebrate the legacy and the incredible resilience of people like Dr. Dismukes, Dr. Harrison and the African American nurses who worked here. At the same time, we lament Jim Crow segregation that prevented Black people from getting treatment in other medical facilities and the racist treatment of Dr. Dismukes that led to the closure of the hospital. I hope that shedding light on this story can lead to a better future for all people.

“Through SWAP, MCC has been working in McDowell County for 17 years. We are eager to work with the local community to learn more and explore how best to honor this history in our programming.”

SWAP staff have completed a historic property inventory with the West Virginia Preservation Office. This inventory confirmed its eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. SWAP is also forming a committee made up of local residents and MCC staff to discuss how to proceed in honoring and acknowledging this history. 

Staff are working to locate descendants of Dr. Dismukes and the nurses who worked at the hospital, along with Dr. Harrison of the Harrison Memorial Hospital.

Anyone with information, personal stories or experiences related to the Henrietta Dismukes Hospital and Nurses’ Home is encouraged to contact Kristin Overstreet at AppalachiaPC@mcc.org or 606-633-4008.