The Pickford Tuberculosis Sanatorium for African Americans
Nowadays, West Southern Pines’ most apparent attraction is its golf course, well renowned for expansive lawns and fresh pine air. But the area’s deeper historical significance includes being one of the first “incorporated” African American towns in North Carolina. “Incorporated” means that it ran with its own mayor, city council, and cultural activities, its self-sufficiency a standout feat in the segregated South. An online project preserving the community’s heritage gives first-hand accounts of day to day life in West Southern Pines. History almost passes by, however, one of the area’s most singular and curious sites. Hidden behind a chain-link fence and foliage stands a crumbling brick wall, topped with a sign that reads “R.C.” Lawrence Institute.” This sign is the last standing tribute to what was once the only sanatorium in the south for African Americans. The Pickford Tuberculosis Sanatorium, as it was once named, devoted itself to the health and well being of African Americans at a time when they were often overlooked.
The Origins of Pickford Tuberculosis Sanatorium
Historian Opal Winchester Hawkin’s book “Pickford Sanitarium and R.C. Lawson Institute: Two Former Institutions of Southern Pines, North Carolina” explains the origins and significance of the institute. In the late 1800s, West Southern Pines had just been incorporated. The area’s developer John T. Patrick wanted to attract Northerners to buy land, so he placed advertisements in Northern newspapers that sang the praises of the properties’ fertile ground, low price point, and fresh pine air–commonly believed to hold curative properties for tuberculosis.
That pine air caught the attention of African American Dr. Lawson Andrew Scruggs, a Raleigh physician searching for a location to treat black patients suffering from tuberculosis. At the time, African Americans were four times more likely to die from the deadly disease than whites. Scrugg astutely observed the reasons behind this disproportionate number. The airborne disease was more likely to affect people who worked long hours, had poor nutrition, and occupied poor living environments–factors that influenced the lives of the majority of African Americans. Despite their higher rate of exposure and vulnerability, African Americans had virtually no treatment options available to them. Segregation kept black people out of the hotels and sanatoriums that treated white patients; even if they had been allowed in, they were unlikely to be able to afford treatment.
The potential of West Southern Pines as the location for building out his dreams galvanized Scruggs to action. He gathered donations from both black and whites in order to build a sanatorium where African Americans could receive humane treatment aimed at rehabilitation. His blueprints provided for 30 patients and included a kitchen, dining room, offices, a nurse’s department, and patient care facilities. Scrugg also laid out treatment plans that explained how the grounds would include room for patients to work as gardeners, carpenters, printers, or undertake other physical occupations that promoted both mental and physical health.
Scrugg’s fundraising efforts paid off. On September 10, 1897, he opened the Pickford Sanatorium, its name chosen in honor of his long-time benefactors. 2,000 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the crowd’s size acknowledging a historic moment that acknowledged the humanity of African Americans and their human right to receive care in a part of the country that just decades earlier had enslaved them.
Pickford Sanatorium’s Short-Lived Success
The sanatorium soon became known as the only sanatorium in the South where African American tuberculosis patients could receive treatment. Patients who stayed at the sanatorium paid $15 a month–a relatively low fee that only partially covered the cost of operations. To make ends meet, Scruggs fundraised relentlessly to keep the doors open, relying primarily on donations from Northerners. His efforts sustained the sanatorium for 15 years, during which time he claimed a 66% “cure rate” (although what he meant by this isn’t exactly clear). Some patients traveled from across the country to receive treatment, while others were locals who lived in the West Southern Pines community.
By 1910, the stress of maintaining adequate funding and resources caught up with Scruggs. His own health fading, he sold the property in December of 1912, and passed away two years later. The establishment transitioned to a school in 1931 under the leadership of another African American pioneer. Bishop R.C. Lawson was a tuberculosis survivor who had a spiritual encounter during his illness that inspired him to found, among other establishments, a new branch of the Pentecostal church. In 1931, Lawson re-opened the former sanatorium as the Industrial Union Training School: a religious boarding school-style institution that taught students black history alongside Lawson’s version of the Christian faith. Alongside a disregard for paperwork, one of the school’s unconventional practices included students partially paying their tuition by performing in touring gospel choirs. After Lawson’s passing in 1961, the school followed the same fate as the sanatorium, closing to transition briefly as a daycare before finally, in 1980, becoming vacant. In 1997, the location became known as Lawson Institute Park. Today, it is demarcated by a chain-link fence and wide green lawns that are maintained by the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the religious institution that Lawson helped found. It’s fortunate that the site’s history, like much of West Southern Pines, can still be found in local folklore and online resources.
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020 Nature
Elisia Guerena Dec 10, 2020
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