The name Homer G. Phillips has become a rallying cry for black healthcare providers in the predominantly black neighborhood of St. Louis, MO. The Homer G. Phillips Hospital became a beacon of hope for thousands of aspiring black nurses and doctors in the 1930s. It was the only public hospital open to black people in St. Louis during much of the 20th Century, and now several former nurses and leaders in the black community are suing to protect the name.
The Homer G. Phillips Nurses’ Alumni Inc. recently filed a federal trademark infringement lawsuit against Paul McKee Jr., a real estate developer in the St. Louis area.
McKee, who is white, is seeking to build a three-bed medical facility for around $20.5 million at the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project. It’s already set to receive $8 million in public funding. The only problem is that he wants to put Homer G. Phillips’ name on it.
“We are 1,000% opposed to Paul McKee stealing the name of this legacy,” said Zenobia Thompson, who served as a head nurse at Homer G. Phillips Hospital.
When it opened in 1937, black nurses and doctors from all over the world came to Homer G. Phillips Hospital to complete their medical residencies. By 1961, the hospital had trained more black providers than any other facility in the world.
“Several nurses came from rural, impoverished backgrounds and went on to get jobs all across the country,” said author and historian Candace O’Connor. “Because all you had to do was say, ‘I’m from Homer Phillips,’ and they would say ‘you’re hired.’”
However, the city eventually defunded the hospital and it permanently closed in 1979. Thompson helped lead the unsuccessful fight in the 1970s to keep city leaders from closing the iconic black teaching hospital.
According to the lawsuit, the name Homer G. Phillips is trademarked, and McKee’s proposed real estate project would infringe upon that trademark.
“Under our interpretation of the law, if the name of the health center is confusingly similar to or implies association with my client, then we believe our claim is valid,” said Richard Voytas Jr., an attorney representing the group.
McKee’s lawyer, Darryl Piggee, told reporters that his client’s plans have not changed but declined to comment further, considering McKee has not yet seen the lawsuit.
Many notable leaders from the local black community have come out against naming the facility after Homer G. Phillips. At the end of 2021, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a resolution deeming the health center’s name “inappropriate cultural appropriation.”
Congresswoman Cori Bush and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones issued a joint statement as well.
“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,” they said.
They urged McKee to listen to nurses, advocates, healthcare workers, and residents from Homer G. Phillips Hospital who are demanding he change the name.
“There is not a major current political leader in the city that has not called on Mr. McKee to change the name,” said activist Walle Amusa, who is part of a coalition fighting against the name. “Only the arrogance of privilege or outright racism will put somebody like that in a position of going ahead and essentially trademarking the legacy of a community.”
Former congressman Lacy Clay, who has a professional relationship with McKee, came under fire for staying silent on the issue while he was still in office. Bush, who ran against Clay in 2020 and won, is a nurse herself. She stood beside the other nurses protesting the name appropriation.
“I stand in solidarity with the doctors and nurses and community members to say, ‘No,’” Bush said at the time. “I would love our congressman to stand with the people and not with his buddies.”
The original hospital was named after Homer G. Phillips, an attorney and civil rights leader who led the fight to get public funding for the building in 1921, a time when most hospitals only catered to white patients and staff. His dream was to build a hospital that would support a thriving black community, but he didn’t live long enough to see his dream come true. He was murdered in 1931 and the crime remains unsolved to this day. Construction on the building began a year after his death.
“The community is saying, ‘Change the name,’” Amusa said. “They’re not saying, ‘Don’t have a clinic.’ Don’t trivialize the legacy, the struggles, the blood, sweat and tears of black people in this community. It’s a very simple demand.”