Separate but Equal?

Dr. Thomas C. Unthank (1866-1932)

Dr. Thomas C. Unthank (1866-1932)

A grand opening ceremony on March 2, 1930 commemorated the new General Hospital No. 2, which soon became known as one of the nation's finest public hospitals serving African Americans. The new hospital unveiled intense divisions over racial segregation and machine politics, but it did manage to fulfill a longstanding demand for medical services and medical career training for the black community.

The story of General Hospital No. 2 dates back to the efforts of Thomas C. Unthank, a prominent black physician living in Kansas City at the turn of the 20th century. Unthank was born in 1866 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He graduated from Howard University School of Medicine in 1898 and then moved to Kansas City. Recognizing a need for more medical facilities for black patients, Unthank organized other black doctors in the area to found the Douglass Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1898, and the John Lange Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1902. Chronically underfunded, these private facilities failed to meet the demands of the black population, which accounted for nearly 10 percent of the population of Kansas City, Missouri. Public facilities were even worse, as black patients who sought care at the Old City Hospital faced segregation and, frequently, outright neglect.

Unthank believed that only a new public hospital catering specifically to minority patients could meet the demand. The 1903 flood, which destroyed much of the West Bottoms, confirmed the lack of facilities. The city only undertook a serious effort to treat area blacks and Hispanics affected by the flood after white patients were cared for, and then only at temporary emergency facilities at Convention Hall, not a proper hospital by any means.

As African Americans nationwide debated the potential costs and benefits of accepting racially segregated facilities, Unthank argued that a segregated facility would at least provide care for minority patients and even an unusual opportunity for the training of future black doctors and nurses. Thanks in large part to his lobbying efforts, the city designated the Old City Hospital to cater only to minority patients in 1908, after the construction of a brand new building for white patients, named General Hospital No. 1. Over time, the Old City Hospital came to be known as General Hospital No. 2.

From 1908 to 1911, General Hospital No. 2 had an all-white staff, but this situation began to change in 1911, when four black physicians, including Unthank, joined the hospital. By 1914, General Hospital No. 2 was the first public hospital in the United States operated entirely by African Americans. By the end of the 1920s, the hospital employed 292 persons, including 72 doctors, dentists, and nurses, and 57 student nurses. Despite the fact that the building was nearly 50 years old, undersized, and ill-maintained, the facilities were at least functional.

More dysfunctional were the local politics that surrounded the hospital. In the 1920s, the hospital's top administrative jobs became a reward for cronies associated with the political machine of "Boss" Tom Pendergast. Furthermore, a neglect of maintenance and updates created great fire hazards. These threats materialized in 1927, when a fire spread through the hospital, causing $30,000 of damage and threatening the lives of 60 patients. In response to the fire, the Municipal Commission approved plans for a new $300,000 hospital to replace General Hospital No. 2. The cause gained a boost from the Pendergast machine, which hoped to secure more votes from the African American community.

The final obstacle to the new General Hospital No. 2 building was an intense debate over the location. The original plans were to build it on Michigan Avenue near 26th and 27th Streets, near the southern edge of the black residential area of town. The Linwood Improvement Association, which represented the white neighborhoods south of 27th Street, protested because of fear that blacks would be encouraged by the hospital to try to move into the all-white neighborhoods. The city conceded and chose a site on 22nd Street, further north.

When General Hospital No. 2 opened on March 2, 1930, some observers considered it to be one of the finest hospitals in the nation, black or white. It was over seven stories tall and boasted all-new equipment. Chester Franklin, founder and owner of The Kansas City Call newspaper, happily noted that, "They did not try to build something 'good enough for Negroes' but something as good as money could buy." Occasional political interference with hospital operations continued, but it was an unusually nice facility for African Americans to have access to in the 1930s. It was also a culmination of the efforts of successful black professionals, like Thomas Unthank, who persevered against racism to secure proper medical facilities for minorities. The new hospital operated independently until 1957, when General Hospital No. 1 merged with General Hospital No. 2.

Read a full biographical sketches of people involved with General Hospital No. 2, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library:

View images of General Hospital No. 2 that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

Check out the following books and articles about General Hospital No. 2, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

Continue researching General Hospital No. 2 using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:


Charles E. Coulter, Take Up the Black Man's Burden: Kansas City's African American Communities, 1865-1939 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 212-213, Chester Franklin quoted, 50-52, 209-214, 294, Chester Franklin quoted, 213.

Samuel Rodgers, "Kansas City General Hospital No. 2," The Journal of the National Medical Association, September 1, 1962, 525-544, 639.

Jason Roe
Historical date: 
Sunday, March 2, 1930

About the Author

Jason Roe is a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, content manager and editor for the Civil War on the Western Border website, and the author of the Library's popular "This Week in Kansas City History" column. Prior to joining the Library, he earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012. While at KU, he was named the 2011-2012 Richard and Jeanette Sias Graduate Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities, and he received the History Department's 2012 George L. Anderson Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation for his work, "From the Impoverished to the Entitled: The Experience and Meaning of Old Age in America since the 1950s." He enjoys tackling a wide variety of projects relating to U.S. and local history.

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