Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fascinating Allies of the Colored Maternity Ward of Ft. Smith, Arkansas

Image of Mrs. Rose Weinberger's engagement photo from
Image of Mrs. Beatrice Robertson from Chicago Defender, March 1936

My recent blog post about the 17 babies saved by the "Colored" Maternity Club has generated much interest. One of the reasons is that so little is known about it, and now seven decades later, it's history is not  known, and it has been basically forgotten. But thanks to the efforts of fellow genealogist Dr. Shelley Murphy, a small piece of the history of the Maternity Club or Maternity Ward has surfaced.

 It is known that the founding director of the Maternity Ward was Mrs. Beatrice Robertson, who operated the ward from her home someplace on North Division Street. Fellow genealogist and researcher, Shelly Murphy of  Fluvanna County, Virginia, read the piece closely, and she noticed that I made a reference to Twin City Hospital, and she decided to see if that would lead to some additional clues.

Well she found one.

Clues Found:
The clues for Dr. Murphy came from the fact that in the previous article, I made a passing remark about Twin City Hospital. And readers may also recall the listing that I located from the city directory of Ft. Smith in 1936 that mentioned that Mrs. Robertson was active in the YWCA. These were the clues.

She decided to conduct a Google search, and she pulled up an interesting book that provided an interesting reference to the works of the Jewish community in Civil Rights and in race relations. There was a reference to the city of Ft. Smith in that book as well. And one interesting reference referred to a woman who was a leader in the city, a leader in the Jewish community, and one who advocated for a number of changes also in the Black community. Today, many remember in Ft. Smith for her volunteerism. Well it appears that she may have also had an impact on the maternity ward.  Mrs. Rose Wienberger assisted in the establishment of  a nursery for black children, and later she was a supporter of the establishment of Twin City Hospital and also served on its board. And understanding the little known history of the Maternity Ward, the nursery grew out of the efforts of the maternity ward itself.

Mrs. Weinberger was also a leader with the YWCA of Ft. Smith. Now most people who grew up in Ft. Smith recall that there were two YWCA facilities in the city. There was one on Lexington Avenue for whites and there was the one for many years on North "H" street for the black community. Well Mrs. Beatrice Robertson was quite active in the YWCA, which is quite possibly how she met Mrs. Weinberg.

So on her Google search, Shelley Murphy found an interesting passage that might lead to more information, and she sent me the following message:

          ".....there was a Jewish connection to Twin City, (The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil  Rights, 1880-1990) maybe something in there."

Well I decided to look at the book that she referenced.
(This book published in 1997 contained a small mention of Ft. Smith, Arkansas 
and the role of Mrs. Rose Weinberger, who was known for her volunteer efforts.)

 I read the small but significant reference to Ft. Smith and to Mrs. Rose Weinberger of the city of Ft. Smith and realized that she is another one of the people whose actions are not fully known. Although Mrs. Weinberger was honored by the city for her outstanding volunteer work, I am not sure if the city was aware of how greatly she also worked for the betterment of lives in the Black Community during the Depression. However, the book Quiet Voices did reveal something significant and it became clear to me, that Rose Weinberger and Beatrice Robertson had to have interacted with each other, and they were somehow fascinating allies.

 Note this excerpt from the book:
Source: Excerpt from Book Quiet Voices. Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s.
University of Alabama Press, November 1997 p. 104

It is quite clear that for Mrs. Robertson's maternity ward to operate, some assistance from the white community would have been needed, and it appears that the voice of support and influence would have been Mrs. Weinberger.  And there was a great need for the maternity home, because none of the hospitals in the city served black patients, so if a woman was in dire need of medical care, this birthing facility would have been an essential place, and it is not hard to conceive that truly lives would have been saved when a clean place was provided for women to give birth and mostly likely the newborns' lives were indeed saved.

Looking at the history of the YWCA in Ft. Smith, there is no question that these two ladies worked together. Rose Weinberger and Beatrice Roberston  were truly fascinating allies in the effort to bring quality medical care and infant care to the community, during the demanding years of the Depression.

So, my interest in the Maternity Ward continues. And now, even more questions have arisen:

-Where exactly was the Maternity Ward? Was it really on the part of Division Street that Google pulled up, or was it possibly on the other side of Division, near St. John's?

-Could there be any photos or records of the facility? Could there be records or photos among the papers of Mrs. Robertson? Does anyone in Ft. Smith remember her, and know who her descendants might be?  And could there be photos or documents among the private papers of Mrs. Rose Weinberger that could be located? (Does anyone have contact with the descendants of Mrs. Weinberger?)

-And just who were those babies saved? If someone knows people who were born in either 1935 or 36, then they just might be candidates for one of those babies. Can they be found? And is there anyone living today who might recognize the faces of any of the 8 babies in the photograph?

Photo from Chicago Defender, March 1936.

The answers will have to come from the community and from those who can still remember.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Who Were the 17 Infants Saved in Fort Smith Arkansas?

Source: The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967) [Chicago, Ill] 07 Mar 1936: 5.

While exploring some old newspapers a fascinating article caught my attention from the Chicago Defender, as it pertained to my hometown of Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Apparently the 1930s were years of many health issues facing children nationwide and newborns were clearly the most vulnerable. This was the heart of the Depression and it was also an era when there were no antibiotics and many vaccines simply did not exist. As times were difficult, many would die from disease and lack of good nutrition and most likely many babies died as well.

There was apparently an effort made by an industrious woman in Ft. Smith Arkansas, who was interested in seeing that the most vulnerable children would survive during those critical years of the Depression, when health care was sparce and particular for those who were poor and Black.  The headline from the The Defender was clear, as the lives of 17 infants were saved by the acts of the Maternity Club.

But exactly what was this "maternity club"?
Is there anyone still living in Ft. Smith who might recall hearing of this maternity home?
And who were the babies?

If they were born in 1936, the year the article was written---they would now be about 77 years old.

Well upon careful examination, of this article in the Chicago Defender it appears that this was a birthing facility, a birthing home for women established in 1935. The founding director of the home referred to as the Maternity Ward, was Mrs. Beatrice Broy Robertson.

Founder of the Maternity Club was Mrs. Beatrice Broy Robertson

Not having much information about Mrs. Robertson, I took a look at the Ft. Smith City Director of 1938 and noticed that the address was actually the residence of Mrs. Robertson. it is noticed that she was quite active in the early days of the YWCA in Ft. Smith as well.

I don't live in Ft Smith, but this story deserves to be told---as there are possibly some elders still in the city of Ft. Smith, who were the very infants who were saved! And their descendants are here today--because of the actions of the Maternity Club and Mrs. Robertson.

Location of The Maternity Ward

According to the article, the Maternity Ward was located at 828 Division Street in Ft. Smith which is now occupied by part of the Nelson Hall Homes. However, in the 1930s the Maternity Ward was located there, and was operated under the direction of Mrs. Beatrice Broy Robinson.

Looking Down Division Street, and the pin shaped marker points to the site where
the Maternity Ward was once located. Today it is in the vicinity of Nelson Hall Homes in Ft. Smith
Image Source: Google Street View.

It is not known how long the Maternity Ward existed. It is most likely that once Twin City Hospital was opened, the maternity ward was moved there.

However for those residents with a strong sense of history and preservation, this can be one of those wonderful historical challenges.

Are there people still living in Ft. Smith, who remember Mrs. Robertson and her legacy?  
Are there any images of the Maternity Ward or of the old homes along Division Street?  
And who were the 17 babies born at the home in 1935 and 1936?

When the article in the Chicago Defender appeared in 1936, there were plans to expand the tasks of the Maternity Club, and to engage in outreach to serve the community.

History is sometimes more than the stories of the famous leaders, but it is often the story and the preservation of the memories of the small communities from which we come.  I was delighted to see the article and hope that the work of Mrs. Beatrice Robertson will be strongly remembered and cherished in Ft. Smith where 17 babies lived because of her. They are now elders and but Mrs. Robertson's work to save the babies should not be forgotten.