The rich history of Florida A&M College Hospital

This building should look familiar to everyone affiliated with FAMU. Photo courtesy:

It seems too many among us are unaware of the history and significance of what was once considered the only hospital that provided healthcare to African Americans in North Florida and where most Black babies who lived in the Tallahassee area were born.

The Florida A&M College Hospital, which is now an administration building known as Foote-Hilyer, was originally a two-story, 19-bed sanitarium built in 1911 primarily for tuberculosis patients. It was supervised by Jennie Virginia Hilyer, who was a registered nurse and later joined in 1926 by Leonard H.B. Foote, who served as the first medical director of the hospital.

Darius J. Young, an associate professor of history at FAMU and the university’s quality enhancement plan director, has a doctorate in African American history. He led a lively discussion Tuesday evening as the guest speaker of Florida Humanities’ most recent virtual event: “Heart of a Community: The History of FAMU Hospital.” This 90-minute presentation effectively reminded all who attended of the role that FAMU’s hospital played in serving African Americans until its closure nearly 50 years ago, and how it created a void in the Black community.

He began the discussion of his research by first speaking about the celebration of the grand opening of the college’s new hospital on Dec. 12,1950.

“This was the day that the college moved approximately 39 patients from the former rickety-wooden building into a $2 million state of the art facility. FAMC Hospital stood as the only hospital for African Americans between Jacksonville and Pensacola, east and west, and Atlanta and Tampa, north and south,” he said. “The 105-bed facility was fully equipped with the latest X-ray equipment, a physical therapy department, blood bank, operating room, obstetrical department, and an emergency room. In addition to providing medical services to the students and residents in the community, the college also planned to use the facility as a teaching laboratory for its thriving nursing program.”

When you think about FAMU and its structure, he said, it’s important to talk about how unique FAMU is regarding the state’s support of historically Black colleges that cane along as the college was transitioning into a university.

“The hospital opens up in 1950, the following year you have the college of pharmacy, the college of law then admits its first class, and by 1953 FAMC changes its name to FAMU. So, when you look at the way it’s set up being the only state supported HBCU in Florida, with all these different programs the vision was for FAMU to become a teaching hospital much the same way Shands Hospital is today. However, FAMU precedes Shands Hospital, which comes along in 1958. It was set up to be this unique place and might be the only state supported HBCU that had its own hospital on campus,” he said.

FAMU quickly became a hub for student activism, especially during the civil rights struggle from the 1950s to the 1960s.

“I know I’m a homer, but I can make an argument that the students at FAMU were the first in the traditional narrative of the civil rights movement to organize a real mass demonstration when students started the bus boycott in 1956 and pioneer activists such as Patricia and Priscilla Stephens organized a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE),” he said.

Although racism made the creation of FAMU necessary, during that period you also began to see public officials and lawmakers argue against historically Black institutions, essentially making the case that they were, well, too Black.

With the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it was clear that FAMU would not be able to operate in the capacity that they were much longer unless they fully integrated their facilities, which forced them to redefine the institution to be relevant in a post segregated society.

Reginald Ellis, an assistant professor of history at FAMU and assistant dean of the School of Graduate Studies, was in attendance He asked about the overall impact of the hospital’s closure and what it did to the Black community.

Young’s response was eye-opening.

“I think we can still get a sense of that, right. Over the past year we’ve had these renewed conversations about the inadequacies that we see regarding health care for Blacks. Post 1971 it made it extremely difficult for poor Black people to have any access to healthcare but FAMU never turned its back on people when they needed help because of their innate responsibility that it had to the African American community,” he said.