This February, we are taking a closer look at Black Health and Wellness in the US, in recognition of both Black History Month and American Heart Month. At The Alliance for Health Equity, our mission is to advance a more equitable, resilient, and healthy Greater Coatesville community. Therefore, it is only fitting that we shine a spotlight on Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital—the first Black hospital in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital
According to Kaiser Health News, Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital opened in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1936. It was founded by Whittier Clement Atkinson, a Black physician who was shunned and turned away from practicing medicine at the local city hospital. As one of seven Black-owned health care providers in the state at that time, Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital rapidly grew from five to 60 beds. Over the years, the facility served thousands of people in poor and Black communities as a full-service hospital, filling a vital need.
While Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital closed in 1978, Whittier Clement Atkinson became the first Black president of the Chester County Medical Society, receiving the respect and recognition he was denied from colleagues at the start of his career. In 2007, the site of the original Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital was honored with a commemorative marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, in conjunction with the 30th Annual Conference on Black History in Pennsylvania. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The inscription reads as follows:
“Founded Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital here, 1936, offering quality health care to all despite inability to pay. First African American president of Chester County Medical Society; Pa. Practitioner of the year, 1960. A 1924 graduate of Howard University, he began his Coatesville practice in 1927.”
The W.C Atkinson Center
In 1991, the Clement Atkinson Memorial Hospital facility reopened as the W.C. Atkinson Memorial Community Center, preserving the important legacy of Dr. Whittier C. Atkinson. In partnership with Brandywine Hospital, a primary care clinic was established in the basement of the center, providing an array of health services to community members—including care for people without insurance or money, as modeled by Dr. Atkinson.
Outreach programs were also offered, such as a diabetes support group, wellness programs, and support for pregnant women. The center extended its services to sheltered men, including annual physical exams and prostate cancer screenings. A 22-bed homeless shelter and transitional housing facilities were then added, providing additional services for more than 200 men annually.
In 2006, The Atkinson Health Center closed to help provide a patient base for the newly developed Chess Penn Health Clinic that opened just a few blocks away, but the homeless shelter remained. As the entry to a progressive program addressing the root causes of homelessness, it serves as a non-threatening environment where residents may stabilize their circumstances, discover the various support systems available, and then begin to access those services within the community to gain employment. The center is currently the only agency in Chester County that offers emergency through permanent housing for single men, with a staff comprised predominantly of former shelter residents.
Alyssa Kotzmann, Development Coordinator at The Alliance for Health Equity, recently had the honor of speaking with Minnie McNeil, one of Atkinson’s former nurses who helped establish the W.C. Atkinson Memorial Community Center. Looking back on the early days of the hospital, McNeil provided first-hand insight and a valuable oral history. It is a remarkable tale that we are proud to share.
Whittier C. Atkinson first came to Coatesville In 1927 to visit a friend. On the way, he asked two women for directions and told them that he was a physician. According to McNeil, the women said, “You can’t go back to New York, we don’t have a Black physician in Coatesville. So many African Americans come here for work at the steel mill, and they need healthcare.” Atkinson went back to New York but could not forget the pleading of the women. Two weeks later, he returned to Coatesville, and in 1936, he opened the first section of his hospital.
McNeil noted that Whittier Atkinson was not only focused on his practice and the hospital, but also on the development of the city and the empowerment of its citizens. “He had patients and staff of all races that absolutely loved being there, and he never turned any race away. Stories were told that people would not have insurance or the money to pay, but Whittier would allow them to pay with other materials like vegetables or meals.”
“It is amazing that he brought along other African American physicians to the City of Coatesville,” said McNeil. “He practiced medicine in a way that was inclusive, and he should be remembered by that legacy. He lived next door and could be seen in the early hours before sunrise sitting by a patient’s bed with his lab coat and his pajamas. He would be sitting, meditating, and praying for the patients.”
The Alliance for Health Equity
Hospital closures are on the rise in our nation—as well as right here at home. The recently closed Jennersville Hospital in West Grove this past December, and our very own Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville last month, has greatly impacted our community, which is 46% African American. In addition to the devastating loss of nearly 800 hospital jobs, Coatesville officially lost its last remaining public hospital, a centuries-old health care institution.
Health and economic disparities, and racial inequities, pose significant challenges in the Greater Coatesville area, and these closures are a major setback with potentially dangerous repercussions. Many of our residents are disadvantaged with no means of transportation, and the remaining options for care, Chester County Hospital or Main Line Health Paoli Hospital for emergency services, are nearly 20 minutes away.
The Alliance for Health Equity is working towards building a thriving, inclusive and healthy community for all. We have accomplished a lot in our mission to advance a more equitable, resilient, and healthy Greater Coatesville community, but it is clear that we still have a long way to go. And we can’t do it alone. To learn more, or to help us make a greater impact, please visit our website today.
The Alliance for Health Equity (formerly Brandywine Health Foundation) is a philanthropic organization striving to advance a more equitable, resilient and healthy community for all residents of the Greater Coatesville area. We pursue our mission by providing grants and scholarships to local nonprofits and students that address health and economic disparities and social justice. We also build partnership programs and give voice to those often left out of community solution building to improve the overall health of their communities. 100% of contributions go directly to those in need.