Former nurses at historic St. Louis hospital file trademark lawsuit against developer

Black elected officials and community leaders say by using the name ‘Homer G. Phillips,’ Paul McKee’s health clinic tarnishes legacy of historic training hospital

By: - July 13, 2022 11:16 am

Former Homer G. Phillips nurse Zenobia Thompson speaks to a group gathered at the Southside Senior Center in St. Louis on Thu., Sept. 30, 2021 about trying to stop a three-bed health facility from being named “Homer G. Phillips Hospital.” (Photo by Wiley Price/The St. Louis American)

The name “Homer G. Phillips Hospital” is still spoken with reverence, not only in St. Louis’ Black community, but across the country. 

Opened in 1937, it was the only public hospital for Black St. Louisans until 1955. 

It was also a training facility, where Black doctors and nurses from around the world came to complete their medical residencies. By 1961, the hospital had trained the largest number of Black doctors and nurses in the world. 

“Several nurses came from rural, impoverished backgrounds and went on to get jobs all across the country,” said author and historian Candace O’Connor in a March interview with the St. Louis American. “Because all you had to do was say, ‘I’m from Homer Phillips,’ and they would say ‘you’re hired.’”

Despite years of community protests, the city defunded and closed the hospital in 1979. Now more than 40 years later, the name Homer G. Phillips Hospital is at the heart of protests again.

On July 11, the Homer G. Phillips Nurses’ Alumni Inc. filed a federal lawsuit against St. Louis developer Paul McKee Jr. for trademark infringement. 

It’s the latest in a series of attempts since 2020 to stop McKee from naming his proposed three-bed health facility the “Homer G. Phillips Hospital.” 

McKee proposes to build the $20.5 million hospital project at the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project, and it’s set to receive $8 million in public funding.

“We are 1,000% opposed to Paul McKee stealing the name of this legacy,” said Zenobia Thompson, who served as a head nurse at Homer G. Phillips and who helped lead the unsuccessful fight in the 1970s to keep city leaders from closing the iconic Black teaching hospital. 

The lawsuit states that the alumni group’s name is trademarked, and the new health center’s name will infringe on that trademark.

“Under our interpretation of the law, if the name of the health center is confusingly similar to or implies association with my client, then we believe our claim is valid,” said Richard Voytas Jr., who is representing the group.  

McKee’s lawyer, Darryl Piggee, told The Independent Tuesday that plans have not changed, but didn’t want to comment further. He had not yet seen the lawsuit.

In December, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a resolution deeming the health center’s name “inappropriate cultural appropriation.”

Congresswoman Cori Bush and Mayor Tishaura Jones issued a joint statement shortly after. 

“Profiting off of Homer G. Phillips’ name on a small 3-bed facility that will fail to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities is an insult to Homer G. Phillips’ legacy and the Black community,” they said. 

They urged McKee to listen to former Homer G. Phillips nurses, advocates, health care workers and residents who are demanding he change the name.

“There is not a major current political leader in the city that has not called on Mr. McKee to change the name,” said activist Walle Amusa, who is part of a coalition fighting against the name. “Only the arrogance of privilege or outright racism will put somebody like that in a position of going ahead and essentially trademarking the legacy of a community.” 

Former congressman Lacy Clay, who had a working relationship with McKee, came under fire during the last congressional election when he was silent on the issue. Amusa said he didn’t help to orchestrate a meeting between McKee and the coalition opposing the name. 

Bush, who is a nurse herself and was challenging Clay, stood and fought beside the former nurses. 

“I stand in solidarity with the doctors and nurses and community members to say, ‘No,’” Bush said during a 2020 interview. “I would love our congressman to stand with the people and not with his buddies.”

It was a blow to Clay’s campaign, as Homer G. Phillips is one of the most important institutions in the city’s African-American history. 

Bush’s challenger in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, Steve Roberts, also faced some heat for being slow to stand with the coalition. but has since publicly stated he opposes the name

McKee’s proposed hospital will be located within his NorthSide Regeneration development footprint, which covers much of North St. Louis and was originally awarded a $390 million TIF in 2009.

In June 2018, city officials attempted to end the development agreement for the NorthSide Regeneration project. The default notice that the city issued to McKee stated, “After a decade, the promised redevelopment has not come, nor is there any indication that it will.”

Still today, much of McKee’s redevelopment plans for North St. Louis have not been achieved. 

Amusa notes that when Homer G. Phillips was operating, the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses flourished. It was a dream that Homer G. Phillips himself, the attorney and civil rights leader who led the fight to get public funding for the hospital in 1921, didn’t live to see. He was murdered in 1931, and construction on the building began a year after Phillips’ still unsolved murder. 

“The community is saying, ‘Change the name,’” Amusa said. “They’re not saying, ‘Don’t have a clinic.’ Don’t trivialize the legacy, the struggles, the blood, sweat and tears of Black people in this community. It’s a very simple demand.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a solutions reporter who focuses on civil rights, criminal justice and the marijuana industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.

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