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Rare Decatur hospital photo located in California library

October 14, 2018

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Local historian and author Peggy Towns has found a photograph that may change how the history of medicine and hospitals is written in Decatur.

After years of searching, she discovered a picture of the Cottage Home Infirmary and Nursing Training School. Cottage Home was located in Old Town Decatur and predates the beginning of Decatur General Hospital, now called Decatur Morgan Hospital.

The photo is part of a collection at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, California.

“When I saw it, I was like ‘wow’ because I had never seen a picture with the name of the hospital painted on the outside of the building,” Towns said.

Most of the written history of Decatur labels the hospital the Ladies of the Benevolent Society opened in 1915 as the first in the River City. In 1888, the ladies in the society cared for people in the community affected by the yellow fever epidemic.

After the epidemic, the ladies sold surplus supplies to raise money to construct a hospital in Decatur.

“At this time the only hospital for white people in the two Decaturs is the Salvation Army hospital and another hospital is badly needed for the two Decaturs,” a newspaper wrote in 1911 about fundraising efforts to construct what is now Decatur Morgan Hospital.

The black community, however, already had an established hospital that offered some of the best medical treatment in the nation and was managed by Dr. W.E. Sterrs, the paper reported.

Sterrs, the son of a former slave, was born in Montgomery, graduated from what is now Alabama State University and earned his medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1888. He practiced in Montgomery for three years until moving to Decatur in 1890.

Towns said Sterrs likely moved to Decatur because he saw “possibilities and opportunities” in a thriving black community.

In 1913, the Journal of the National Medical Association published an article that said the infirmary opened in a three-room cottage in 1900, and within a decade, was a two-story building with 18 rooms.

The first nurses graduated from the training school in 1910 and, according to the medical association, “quite a variety of cases, both medical and surgical, have been treated in this institution with credit to its management and nurses.”

Sterrs treated people “regardless of race or whether they had the means to pay,” the local paper reported in 1911. And, at one point, officials with the all-white Ladies Benevolent Society of Decaturs requested that some of its nurses receive training at Dr. Sterrs’ nurse training school.

Wylheme Ragland, who has done extensive research on several Decatur families, said Sterrs was the first black doctor in Decatur and a “very progressive man” whose influence on the community extended beyond his medical practice.

In 1897, Sterrs became the first black to be appointed to the Pension Board of Decatur. Four years later, he wrote a letter that became part of the permanent record of the 1901 State Constitutional Convention. He argued against the constitution because it disenfranchised blacks and poor whites.

“Realizing the fact that no member of the negro race is represented in your august body to speak one word for us, we must appeal to you in this manner,” Sterrs wrote.

Samuel Blackwell — one of three to represent Morgan County at the convention — introduced the letter. Sterrs’ passionate plea to keep his rights as a voter failed, but in March 1902, he was one of three blacks to register with the Board of Registrars.

No one in the office disputed his qualifications, but he was denied his voting certificate.

Sterrs continued to operate his dry goods business and medical clinic until his death in April 29, 1921. He was 53. Towns said he died at Swan Creek in Limestone County.

His funeral was at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and he is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

Ragland said Sterrs’ widow, Eva Adelaide Young Sterrs, also left her mark on Decatur. In addition to working and teaching in the infirmary, she was a publisher, civil leader and philanthropist. She graduated from Fisk University and served as editor and publisher of The Guardian, a newspaper she founded in Decatur.

After her husband’s death, Eva Sterrs lived mostly in seclusion in the couple’s massive and ornate residence called Sunny Lodge at the corner of Vine and Washington Streets.

She died Feb. 24, 1958, at Decatur General Hospital and is buried next to her husband in Montgomery. Eva Sterrs was 87.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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