Reunited after 50 years

Were others separated at St. Louis hospital?

BY NANCY CAMBRIA
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH / TNS

ST. LOUIS –  Homer G. Phillips Hospital was the crown jewel of The Ville neighborhood of St. Louis, heralded in the history books as the training ground for hundreds of African-American doctors at a time when few hospitals would hire or sponsor physician residencies for Blacks.

Melanie Gilmore, left, recently met her mother Zella Jackson Price for the first time.  (COURTESY OF ZELLA JACKSON PRICE)
Melanie Gilmore, left, recently met her mother Zella Jackson Price for the first time.
(COURTESY OF ZELLA JACKSON PRICE)

The city-owned hospital, which for decades was the only hospital in the segregated region dedicated to serve Black patients, closed its doors in 1979.

But now, on the heels of a mother-daughter reunion story that went viral on the Internet, the hospital’s former maternity ward is under intense scrutiny.

Adoption scheme?
That attention has been amplified by Clayton, Mo., attorney Albert Watkins, who sent out a news release this week demanding Missouri and St. Louis officials be fully transparent with state and city records involving the former hospital and city-run foster care system.

In a letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, Watkins alleged “a scheme and artifice to steal newborns of color” for private adoption.

Special gift
On March 8, a video was posted on Facebook and later YouTube that received hundreds of thousands of views showing the moment Melanie Gilmore of Oregon received a special 50th birthday present from her children. On the video Gilmore – who is deaf – was told by her children through sign language and lip reading that they had found her birth mother she never knew.

The DNA her children had covertly swabbed from her mouth under the guise of a school project had turned out to be a match with a 76-year-old woman from St. Louis.

Gilmore’s mother, it turned out, was the world-renowned gospel singer Zella Mae Jackson Price, of Olivette, Mo., who has performed on stages and in churches around the world. And in the video, the two were instantly connected via a laptop computer.

Tracked via Facebook
Gilmore’s daughter Mehiska Jackson, 22, said she had tracked Jackson Price down last summer through Facebook after piecing together the names Zella, Mae and Jackson – names her mother had once spied as a child on her birth certificate kept by her foster parents. Mehiska said her twin sister, Melika, looked exactly like the photos of Jackson Price on Facebook.

On Feb. 20, Mehiska said God finally gave her the courage to friend Jackson Price on Facebook. She sent her an instant message telling her she thought Jackson Price was her mother’s mother, and further, “I want to know if you’re my grandmother.”

In the dark hours of early morning, Jackson Price immediately messaged back and asked why Mehiska ever would think Jackson Price was her grandmother.

Mehiska then shared her mother’s Nov. 25, 1965, birth date at Homer G. Phillips. Jackson Price responded that she had given birth to a baby girl at the hospital the same day, but her newborn had died hours later.

By the end of the conversation, Jackson Price agreed to a DNA test.

Neither knew
In her first conversation with her mother, Gilmore learned for the first time that Jackson Price did not give her up as her foster parents told her.

Nor did Jackson Price know her daughter was alive and had grown up near her with foster parents in St. Louis. Nurses told her that her daughter, whom she had named Diane, had died just hours after she gave birth to her prematurely.

Family reunion
Last month, the entire family was able to arrange a reunion after Gilmore’s adult children raised the money to fly to St. Louis to meet Jackson Price, her five surviving other children and many grandchildren. It was filmed by local television.

Amid the publicity, another shock hit. The families began getting Facebook messages and calls from people who said they feared the same thing had happened to them or their loved ones after delivering babies at Homer G. Phillips.

Watkins, the attorney hired by the family, said he had been contacted by well over a dozen people. All say they or a loved one gave birth at the hospital, were told by a nurse the babies died, but were never given a chance to see the bodies.

‘Hard to dismiss’
“There are so many similarities to their stories, it’s pretty hard to dismiss,” said Watkins, who noted the mothers were all Black, and typically single from poor circumstances.

“And these women have in many cases endured decades and decades of anguish and grief and unresolved closure.”

On Wednesday, a woman who did not want to be identified came to Watkins’s office accompanied by her niece with suspicions that the same thing had happened to her at the hospital in 1976. The pair went all the way to Jefferson City, Mo., to get the original birth certificate. They said they found no death certificate for the child on file with the state.

Jackson Price said her efforts on Thursday to locate a birth certificate for Gilmore at the city vital records department did not turn up a match with Gilmore’s name given at birth, Diane Jackson. She said employees there said about 10 other people had come in recently seeking birth certificates for children born at Homer G. Phillips.

Inquiries by the Post-Dispatch to St. Louis offices on whether records from the hospital are in city archives have yet to be answered. City officials have also not responded to requests to find out what publicly accessible records exist regarding the then-city-run foster care system.

In the meantime, people can only speculate on what truly happened.

Nothing suspicious
Retired St. Louis physician Dr. Mary Tillman, who was an intern and later did a pediatric residency at the hospital during the 1960s, said Thursday that the hospital had numerous protocols in place and record-keeping to track the babies and their mothers. She said she had no suspicions anything was amiss during her time there and hopes it was a mere mix-up and not a nefarious action of an employee.

Tillman said paper records at the time were extensive. She noted that doctors, not nurses, made the final call if a baby died and were always the ones to keep parents appraised of a baby’s condition and break the news to parents if a child died. She said the hospital’s policy was to allow parents to hold their deceased children, though Watkins said numerous mothers who had come to him said the hospital refused that request.

‘A real grandmother’
As for Mehiska Jackson, she said her mother and her siblings are delighted to learn they have so many loving relatives, though the mystery of what happened to her mother and the years they all lost with their extended family is upsetting.

“I’ve always wanted a grandmother – a real grandmother,” she said. “And now I just want her to stay on this earth forever.”

Jackson Price said there were plans for Gilmore to move to St. Louis to be with the mother she missed out on for nearly 50 years. She hopes that God is helping others like her find answers and that it has “given them hope.”

But Jackson Price has a profound worry amid her joy.

In September 1960, five years before her daughter Gilmore was born, Jackson Price delivered another child at Homer G. Phillips hospital. She named him Michael. He too was born a few weeks early.

She was also told by nurses that Michael had died.

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