Special to The Dallas Examiner
Parkland Health officials closed the doors to the former Parkland Memorial Hospital July 11, signifying the start of a 24-month process that will end with the building’s complete removal from the site.
The original building opened in 1894 as a clapboard building on the corner of Maple and Oak Lawn avenues. The building made its mark in Black history and medical history as it joined the state on its slow journey toward civil rights and equality.
In 1937, Ollie Lee McMillan Mason, the daughter of a Black physician, became the first Black nurse to work at Parkland. For four years she worked nights supervising the obstetrics division. She later went on to work for the Dallas health department. This led her to study more about premature babies, and later, teach about the care of premature babies to medical professionals in clinics across the Dallas area, according to her obituary and the UNT Digital Library.
Lt. Mary E. Walton was the second African American nurse to work at the hospital. Previously, she enlisted to serve as a nurse in the army during World War II. She was the first Black nurse from Dallas to serve in the U.S. Army. Like Mason, she was the only Black nurse at the hospital when she arrived. She went on to become the hospitals first Black clinical vocational nurse to serve as an instructor and the first Black emergency room nurse. She later left the hospital and became a family nurse practitioner, according to the UNT Digital Library.
Due to Jim Crow laws, African American patients were not allowed in White only wards. They were segregated and seen in basement and attics of Texas hospitals. Units of blood were also collected, stored and administered separately.
Also, Black doctors were not allowed to work at White hospitals until the 1950s. The historic change was attributed to the work of Dr. Tate Miller, a White physician who once interned at Parkland, who went before the Texas Medical Association House of Delegates to urge them to allow Black doctors, in 1949, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The initiative took five years. One by one, White hospitals began hiring Black doctors.
In the meantime, Parkland would make its move to a newly built building at 5201 Harry Hines Blvd., treating its first patient Sept. 25, 1954.
It remained segregated until sometime between 1967 and 1969, after a 1966 federal initiative toward inclusion announced hospitals in the southern states would be barred from its Medicare program unless they ended their practice of discrimination and segregation, according to The Federal Effort To Desegregate Southern Hospitals And The Black-White Infant Mortality Gap, a collaborative report.
In 1969, Claude McCain Jr. became the hospital’s first Black administrator. He worked as a research assistant. After he earned his master’s degree in health care administration, McCain began climbing the career ladder to become director of the personnel department and eventually vice president of minority development. Though he worked during the day, he often visited with personnel who worked the late-night shift to maintain a link between all medical personnel and executives, according to Capitol.Texas.gov and the UNT Digital Library.
In August 2015, Parkland moved to its state-of-the-art 870-bed, 17-story hospital across the street at 5200 Harry Hines Blvd. On Aug. 16, 2015, the last inpatient was wheeled across its sky bridge into the new hospital.
For Grady Portis Sr., 60, the building has significant meaning. Not only was he born in Parkland, but it has been his work home for the last 22 years. As one of Parkland’s Life Safety Coordinators, Portis was one of the last employees stationed in the former hospital.
“It’s a little sad that the building is coming down,” Portis said. “There’s so much history. I can remember my grandmother bringing me to the emergency department when I was just a kid and had gotten hurt. On my last birthday [in March], I went up to the labor and delivery area and thought ‘this is where my life began.’”
Still Portis said he understands that time has taken its toll on the aging facility.
The building is no longer suitable for contemporary health care use. The deterioration of its mechanical, plumbing, electrical and life safety systems, and the high cost of ongoing electrical power consumption even in its “mothballed” state led Parkland leaders to make the fiscally sound decision to demolish the building.
“The building is only barely viable for administrative operations, but because of its age and the lack of availability of parts for many of the mechanical systems, it’s time to make room for a building that is projected to save the Dallas County taxpayers about $3.4 million in annual lease costs,” said John Raish, Parkland’s senior vice president of support services.
He noted that even though the former hospital is where President John F. Kennedy died, the building was never designated as a historical site, and the emergency department had been renovated numerous times since 1963.
“Every year, especially in November, we receive inquiries from people asking about Trauma Room 1, but it hasn’t been in existence for years,” Raish said. “The entire room was purchased by the federal government decades ago and all of its contents are in a secure location near Kansas City, Missouri.”
The multi-step process will take more than a year and will include hazardous materials abatement, including the removal of asbestos, a common building material used through the 1980s, followed by piece-by-piece demolition of the building. Demolition is expected to be completed in November 2023. Construction will then commence on an administration tower that will house Parkland staff who are currently occupying leased space in numerous locations across the city.
Robyn H. Jimenez/The Dallas Examiner contributed to this report.