The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, JUNE 11, 1939


A Visit To Mecklenburg Sanatorium

By W. J. Cash

"The picture shows a section of the ward for Negro men at the Mecklenburg County
Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Huntersville. There are sixteen men crowded into this ward, which has no adequate provision for isolating the dying. And there are seventeen Negro
women in the female ward. From half as many to as many more are always waiting for
admittance." (As originally appearing with the article.)

Site ed. note: This piece is the only known instance of Cash turning to reporting in his later years and one of only a few human interest stories he ever wrote--though,of course, virtually all of his writing was "human interest" in the broader sense. The compassionate article, which appeared as a rare locally produced feature on the regular editorial page, must have turned some heads at the time; it is hard to imagine now that such conditions actually existed in health care a mere 60 years ago in and around a city the size of Charlotte, then, just under 100,000 in population. It is even harder to imagine the segregated facilities and grossly disparate conditions. But they existed and even in the lifetimes of those of us born as late as the early fifties. Cash's stressed distinction between the treatment afforded blacks and whites in the facility is especially moving; his appeal to the practical side of whites, compulsory in those days to reach the broader mass, especially those in the hierarchy of the community, appears at the conclusion of the article--an it-is in-your-best-interests-to-improve approach to problems echoed often in The Mind of the South.

Parenthetically, one has also to wonder, with this state of health care in Charlotte, why the young John F. Kennedy would have come all the way from Boston for the stated reason of treatment for his health problems, now known to have been Addison's Disease, between 1939 and 1941. But that is what history records. (The Search for J.F.K., Joan and Clay Blair, Jr., New York, 1976, pp. 103-107)


THE men lay still, save for a slight turning of their eyes. Some of them gave no indication of interest at all, but went on staring at the ceilings or gazing into the incalculable distances through half closed lids. The women, however, shifted eagerly and raised themselves up on elbows to look at the visitors. All but one fat yellow woman blissfully absorbed in the green all-day sucker in her mouth.

Thirty-two Negroes. Packed into two wards very much as sardines are packed into cans. Sixteen in the men's ward, seventeen in the women's. Just walking space between the cots. In one corner at the back of each ward is a little room which passes for an isolation ward. It has three beds. No door. They put the far-gone cases there either to take a change for the better or to die--usually to die. If they die audibly, and they do die audibly nearly always, the other patients hear their rattling gasps, their moans and their mutterings. Most of them can see their contorted faces and bodies as they struggle for the last precious breath. The bodies of the dead must be carried out under the eyes of the whole ward.

In another corner of each ward is a bathroom. One toilet, one bathtub, one wash basin--for sixteen men or seventeen women.

Thirty-two Negroes here now. And always from fifteen to thirty more waiting. Waiting means waiting until somebody is cured--or dies.


The Mecklenburg County Tuberculosis Sanatorium is not an ideal place for anybody. The main building is dark and none too well ventilated. Has an uncomfortable habit of threatening to fall down at intervals, has had to be shored up already, although it was built in 1926. The floors are bad. Because it was not built fireproof, expensive sprinkler systems have had to be installed. The rooms and wards where white patients who are seriously ill with tuberculosis are kept are small and stuffy, and all of them are overcrowded. The convalescent wards are better, because they are simply long porches, with a large air and sun area. The sanitary facilities are skimpy and old-fashioned. Seven to eight people use each bathroom. Worst of all, the building is so arranged that it is necessary to pass through the sick wards to reach the convalescent wards, and for patients in the convalescent wards to reach bathrooms. The place is scrupulously clean, but odors cannot be kept entirely down.

Nevertheless, if the place isn't ideal, it is after some fashion fairly adequate to its task, so far as white people go. Formerly, there were no adequate provisions for isolation wards, and the doomed died in the faces of the other patients. But since Dr. H. L. Seay assumed charge, that has been remedied by cutting off the ends of the halls and making them into rooms. Under Dr. Seay, too, notable advances have been made in equipment. The hospital has a pneumothorax machine now, an excellent X-ray department, and a laboratory equipped with microscope and sterilizers, as well as a basic metabolism testing machine.


The children's ward, which is located in a separate building, is a considerable improvement over the rest of the establishment. The quarters are much more roomy, are lighter and a great deal better ventilated. The children are not confined to their beds save for a short period at the beginning of their treatment. Frequent rest periods are imposed. But they are allowed to play games on the lawn in front for several hours each day. There is a schoolroom, too, and one teacher--so that their education is not entirely neglected while they are lost from the world. For the main, they are not fed in bed, as all adult patients save those in the late stages of convalescence, but in a bare dining room with bare wooden tables and heavy dishes.

The over-squeamish might not be altogether happy in this place, but fortunately, most of the people who go to it are not that squeamish. And it is an excellent place to be if, being white, you have tuberculosis and want to get well, for its percentage of cures is extraordinarily high. Right now, Dr. Seay is very proud of the cure of a woman who has been there for nine years, and has repeatedly been given but a few months to live. She will be released before long, and when she is, will be found a job into which she can fit. The hospital works closely with the State Rehabilitation Service in finding economic niches for those who have been cured, and who, in many cases, have lost all contact with their past and the world during years of treatment.


Moreover, the hospital not only cures its patients and fits them back into the world again, but it takes care of all, or nearly all the white people, who are eligible for its services. At present there are only two on the waiting list. And occasionally there actually are more vacancies than there are eligible patients. In that case, patients are occasionally received from other counties, but only upon payment of $2.50 a day for each month in advance. Sometimes it is hard to determine the question of eligibility. A member of a family properly domiciled in Mecklenburg goes away and returns, or other similar circumstances arise. In such cases, where the need for treatment is pressing and there is no evidence of fraud, and when there is available room, the patient is sometimes given the benefit of the doubt. There are three such borderline cases in the hospital at present. Sometimes, too, actual fraud lifts its head. Not long ago a man gained admittance to the institution by bribing his landlady to tell investigators that he had been living in the county for two years, though he had really been here only two weeks. He was detected, however, and sent elsewhere. All applicants are closely investigated by the Welfare Department before their receipt.

Patients who can pay do so. If they are able to pay fully for their care, they pay that rate. If they can pay part, they pay that. But those who cannot pay are received on exactly the same terms as the others.


But if the hospital is fairly adequate, by minimum standards, to the care of the tubercular white population of the county it is plainly and woefully inadequate to take care of the Negroes also. The crowded conditions in the wards inevitably lessen the chances of the patients to get well, once they finally gain admission. But what is far worse is the long wait before admission can be had. Tubercular patients can usually be cured fairly rapidly--in a year or so--if treatment is begun in the early stages of the disease. But when they are compelled to wait a year or two or three or four years before adequate care can be given them, then a long time is required if they are to be cured at all. And, indeed, many of them cannot be cured. The mortality rate in the colored ward at the Sanatorium is far higher than that in the white ward. And the mortality rate among tuberculars outside the hospital is almost entirely accounted for by Negroes. Every year, an appalling number of blacks are literally condemned to death by the fact that the hospital has no way to take care of them.

And if you think, as a white man or white woman, that that is no business of yours--that it couldn't move you to fork over two pennies out of each hundred smackers you own--then there is your interest as a white man to be considered: the interest of yourself and your white wife and white children: Dr. Seay says that the tubercular menace can never be controlled in Mecklenburg so long as these Negroes are not hospitalized. For each one left to roam at large with the disease serves as a walking source of infection for every person he meets who is susceptible to it. And it is quite impossible to isolate them from white people. On the contrary, many of them go directly into white homes for the preparation of the food eaten there, or for the care of white children. Over half of all those who have been admitted to the hospital since he became superintendent, says Dr. Seay, have been employed in domestic service, and many of them were so employed right up to the time of their admission.

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