Former Nurses of Historic Black Hospital Sue to Preserve Its Legacy

Roni Robbins

July 19, 2022

A training facility for Black doctors and nurses in St. Louis, Missouri, which was the only public hospital for Black community from the late 1930s through the mid-1950s, has been at the center of many contentious community protests over the years and is facing another.

A federal lawsuit was filed recently by the nurses' alumni of Homer G. Phillips Hospital against a St. Louis developer who is using the hospital's name for a small for-profit urgent care health facility.

Homer G. Phillips was a St. Louis attorney and civic leader who joined with other Black leaders in 1922 to gain money for a hospital that would serve the Black community, according to online sources. He didn't live to see the hospital named in his honor completed in 1937.

The Homer G. Phillips Nurses' Alumni, Inc., claims that the name of the new health center, doing business as Homer G. Phillips Hospital, infringes on the alumni group's trademark. The former Homer G. Phillips Hospital closed in 1979 despite the community's outcry at that time, according to The Missouri Independent. The building sat vacant for many years before being converted into a senior center, Yvonne Jones, alumni president, told Medscape Medical News.

She said of the new health center, which hasn't opened yet, "We are not against the facility; we want to protect the name and legacy" of the original hospital, which remains at the heart of the historic St. Louis Black community.

At press time, the developer and his attorneys had not returned Medscape's request for comment.

Having a new center with the name of the iconic hospital would mean that "the goodwill and the pride it represents has been usurped," said Zenobia Thompson, who served as head nurse of Homer G. Phillips and is now the co-chair of the Change the Name Coalition. It formed last year after Thompson and others noticed a sign posted at the site of the new health center that lists it as the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, with a trademark symbol that the nurses say it doesn't have a right to.

The coalition, which meets weekly, sponsored a petition and has been protesting at the site of the new center twice a month, Thompson said.

"We wrote a letter to [developer] Paul McKee that the legacy not be trivialized for commercial reasons," Thompson said.

Richard Voytas, attorney for the alumni group, told Medscape that the developer did not ask permission from the nurses to use the trademark and he didn't know if the nurses will grant that permission now. "If they [the developers] use the name, it is very important that they honor the Homer G. Phillips legacy," Voytas said.

Honoring a Legacy or Taking Advantage of a Name?

In her new book, Climbing the Ladder, Chasing the Dream: A History of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, author Candace O'Connor cites the importance of the hospital's heritage.

"Several nurses came from rural, impoverished backgrounds and went on to get jobs all across the country," O'Connor wrote in the book. "Because all you had to do was say, 'I'm from Homer Phillips,' and they would say 'you're hired.' It didn't just change the nurse. It created opportunities for whole families."

The area where the hospital remains once boasted a grocery store, high school, college, ice cream shop, and renowned Black churches, some of which still exist as historical sites. "They built up the area for Blacks who couldn't go anywhere else," Jones said.

In the suit, the alumni group describes itself as a 100-year-old philanthropic organization that brought healthcare to St. Louis' historically underserved Black community and remains very active in the area today in fundraising and community outreach efforts. The group has been fighting with the developers since learning in 2019 about the proposed use of the name that is "confusingly similar" to the trademark and immediately voiced its objections via lawsuit, demanding that another name be chosen, stating:

"…in its name and efforts to market its for-profit urgent care facility immediately within plaintiff's primary market to directly compete with plaintiff for name recognition and goodwill, only increases the likelihood of consumer confusion and, upon information and belief, represents an effort by defendants' to pass off their products and services as those offered by plaintiff and its members."

"Defendants stated purpose in using the mark, or a phrase confusingly similar to the mark, for its name is to 'honor' the name of Homer G. Phillips and to 'emulate his spirit andtenacity in serving the health care needs of North St. Louis,'" the suit continues.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a resolution in December calling the use of the name for the new health center an "inappropriate cultural appropriation." Mayor Tishaura Jones and Congresswoman Cori Bush followed that with a joint statement: "Profiting off of Homer G. Phillips' name on a small 3-bed facility that will fail to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities is an insult to Homer G. Phillips' legacy and the Black community."

The alumni group is requesting a jury trial and damages to be determined at trial, three times the defendant's profits or plaintiffs' damages, whichever is greater, along with attorneys' fees and interest.

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