Mortar rounds shook the bunker. The 8225th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) was crammed with casualties—civilians, Americans, and KATUSAs (Korean Augmentation to US Army). The four surgical tables under the direction of its acting chief surgeon, Alvin G. Blount, often operated around the clock, doing as many as 90 surgeries during sleepless protracted engagements. Blount could shut out the mayhem and focus only on his patient’s needs, as if everything else in the world had stopped. His calm, gentle demeanor commanded respect. His was the first racially integrated MASH unit, and he was its first black chief surgeon. Blount received the Korean War Service Medal for these efforts and would later become part of a group of doctors that helped radically reform US health care. He died earlier this year, the last surviving member of the group that initiated that effort.
The stories of the Korean MASH units would become popularized in a book, a movie, and a popular television series called M*A*S*H that ran from 1972 to 1983 and still appears in syndicated reruns. Yet, in an apparent attempt to assure “historical accuracy,” the television series chose to eliminate the black surgeon that appeared in the book and movie version.
After the war, Blount returned to private practice in racially segregated Greensboro, North Carolina. His Howard University medical school mentor, Charles Drew had warned him, “you boys going south will have to sweat it out, but victory will come.” Despite the US Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate was inherently unequal in education, “separate but equal” remained the law of the land for hospitals. The Hill-Burton Act of 1946 specifically permitted federal funding for the construction of the two white-only hospitals in Greensboro and made similar provisions for other Southern cities. Black physicians in Greensboro were excluded from medical staff privileges at these white hospitals, one of which was the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, the most well-endowed hospital in the region. Segregation in hospitals remained for another decade as Blount and a few courageous colleagues engaged in a polite and seemingly fruitless struggle against a powerful, entrenched white establishment.
George Simkins, Jr., a dentist and aggressive activist, took charge of the Greensboro chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the early 1950s and sought the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) to challenge the city’s segregated hospital system. But recruiting black physicians to join as plaintiffs proved difficult. Some were comfortable with the status quo, and most were concerned about damaging ties with white colleagues, who they relied on for help with their patients. Blount himself was reluctant, but he was close friends with Simkins and knew that the segregated system resulted in lower-quality care for his patients. Blount joined the lawsuit and helped Simkins recruit five other physicians to do the same. These five physicians, in addition to two black dentists, two black patients, Blount, and Simkins, made up the final list of 11 plaintiffs. Michael Meltsner, a young, white protégé of Thurgood Marshall, served as lead attorney.
The suit, filed in US District Court in 1962, argued that Greensboro’s two white hospitals, the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital and the Wesley Long Hospital, functioned as an “arm of the state,” having received a total of $2.8 million in federal Hill-Burton program funds. By remaining segregated, the hospitals violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution. Accordingly, the plaintiffs argued, the Hill-Burton law was unconstitutional because it provided federal funding for the construction of racially segregated institutions. As is customary with any case challenging federal law, the US attorney general was given the opportunity to defend the federal government. Surprisingly, however, Attorney General Robert Kennedy joined the plaintiffs, seizing the opportunity to push the administration’s stalemated civil rights agenda. Despite this unexpected support, the District Court dismissed the suit. The “victory” that Charles Drew had promised seemed increasingly distant.
Blount and his fellow plaintiffs, however, now found themselves at the beginning of a long and unpredictable journey to transform US health care. In a 3:2 decision in 1963, the US Court of Appeals of the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The hospital defendants appealed to the US Supreme Court, but in a rushed ruling, just days before the Senate began its longest debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court chose to not review the lower court decision and let it stand. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the most likely provision to be eliminated to assure the bill’s passage, prohibited the provision of any federal funding to organizations that discriminated on the basis of race. By letting the Fourth Circuit decision stand, the Supreme Court effectively made Title VI the law of the land before it had even passed through the legislative branch.
Resistant to any federal interference in their organization, the executive committee of the board of the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital recommended to the full board that the hospital return its Hill-Burton funds to the federal government to relieve it of any obligation to desegregate. That recommendation was rejected. Nothing in the Court’s decision, of course, prevented other hospitals from choosing not to apply for Hill-Burton construction funds or from returning funds they had already received. There was also no provision in the law for federal enforcement for those hospitals that had already received federal money. The NAACP LDF or other parties could mount challenges against individual hospitals, but it would be a slow and costly process.
The Medicare legislation enacted less than a year later, however, changed the game. Hospitals could survive without Hill-Burton funds, but they could not “choose” not to be Medicare and Medicaid providers. No hospital would be certified as a Medicare provider without being fully compliant with concrete nondiscrimination requirements. Local civil rights groups whose members included hospital workers served as the final arbiters. Any lapses in enforcement by federal volunteer inspectors or subterfuge by the hospitals would not escape notice.
In less than six months, 6,000 hospitals became fully compliant. Thanks to Medicare, America’s hospitals went from being our country’s most racially and economically segregated institution to our most integrated. Almost all of the separate wooden bench waiting rooms and welfare wards disappeared. Patterns of use of services that had always been shaped by racial and economic privilege began, for the first time, to reflect actual medical need. Over the next 20 years, racial and economic disparities in infant mortality and life expectancy narrowed. In Greensboro, Blount became the first black surgeon to operate at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital. Yet, the events that propelled all of these changes have been almost forgotten. Only current political events in North Carolina and nationally have stirred some local reflection about that past.
A statue of Simkins was unveiled on the lawn of the Guilford County Courthouse in October 2016, near where he was jailed for trespassing in 1955 after trying to play golf with friends on the city-owned golf course. Only after his death was he honored as the city’s “Moses.”
In 2016, Blount, at age 94, was the only surviving plaintiff in the Simkins v. Moses Cone Hospital suit. He was still seeing a limited number of patients under the watchful eye of his loyal long-time practice manager, Martha Reid. His office on East Market Street was filled with memorabilia and memories of more than a half century of practice. In October, he was invited to a meeting at the regional nonprofit integrated health system that Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital became. About 250 health care professionals and community leaders attended, along with Blount’s children. Dr. James Wyatt, a black surgeon and president of the Cone Health medical and dental staff, thanked Blount “for opening doors for me.” Cone CEO, Terry Akin, addressed Dr. Blount: “It seems to me, and to our medical and dental staff, that we needed to take the opportunity to apologize for our role in this chapter of our history and to honor these individuals for challenging us to be our best selves, and for their foresight and courage in changing America.” Cone donated $250,000 to a scholarship fund honoring Blount and the other plaintiffs that will provide support for minority students pursuing careers in health care. It will be administered by the Greensboro Medical Society, one of many local black medical societies across the country that played a key role in the hospital desegregation struggle. A month later, a historical highway marker was unveiled on North Elm Street adjacent to the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, acknowledging the plaintiffs and their role in changing the nation’s hospitals.
Dr. Blount passed away on January 6, 2017, at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital after a brief illness. His family marked his passing with a quiet event at the small Episcopal church adjoining the North Carolina A&T State University campus, which served as an early organizing center for the lunch counter sit-in movement. “My life is my memorial,” he had told his practice manager. “No big casket or cemetery plot either—cremation. … Just be sure I’m dead before you burn me.”
His life was indeed his memorial. From caring for wounded soldiers in Korea to feeding arrested Dudley High School students after a lunch counter sit-in, Blount was an endless source of compassion and integrity. He and his wife lovingly raised seven children, and his youngest daughter, Gwen Blount Adolph, now a lawyer in New York, recently reflected on her father’s life: “My daddy was a gentle soul who wanted to do right by everyone.” She recalled the night the arm fell off her brother Alvin’s teddy bear, and he was inconsolable. “We all had this vivid memory of my dad taking needle and thread and operating on Teddy…. We all gathered around, as if it was an operating room. He was so patient, and it was so important to my brother. It was as if everything else in the world had stopped—that was Daddy.”
In these divisive times, it is too easy to be dismissive of the past and despairing about the future. The lives of Dr. Blount and the other Moses Cone plaintiffs tell us something different. They tell us that landmark pieces of social policy such as Medicare, when implemented fairly and compassionately, can promote justice and equality. And they tell us that the power to remedy injustices lies with individuals who are willing to challenge the status quo and further the cause of universal health care for all Americans.