Back before Jackson’s Veterans Administration Hospital became “Sonny Montgomery Medical Center” and before the building expanded into a labyrinth designed to confuse veterans and their families, the land it sat on was owned by the State of Mississippi. It had been the home of the state insane asylum and its farms and cemetery from about 1850 until 1935. In the 1950s, the state began re-developing this huge tract of land that once stood outside of Jackson but now was at the center of the city’s suburban boom. Concurrently, the federal government found itself needing to care for the hundreds of thousands of returning WWII and Korean veterans, while WWI vets were getting on up in years. So the feds asked the state for a piece of this land, which by then held University Hospital and St. Dominic. This put the state, specifically its Sovereignty Commission, in an awkward spot, because, you know, black veterans would want to go to this hospital along with white veterans.
This 1957 article from the Vicksburg Evening Post follows the same theme as last year’s post Segregation in the Jet Age in that it shows the contortions that Mississippi officials were going through in the 1950s as they fought to preserve segregation while still being “modern” enough for business to want to locate here.
State Agency Backs Donation of Land For VA Hospital
By TIM PARKER
JACKSON, Miss. — A state agency created to maintain Mississippi’s segregation of races found itself today in the uncomfortable position of favoring donating state land for an integrated veterans hospital. One member rebelled.
“They’re deliberately ingrating [sic], as part of an overall scheme to force it down our throat,” state Sen. Earl Evans Jr. of Canton said of State Sovereignty Commission action supporting providing a site for a new VA hospital here.
The commission, created by the 1956 Legislature and given a $250,000 budget, went on record as favoring donation of the land but asking that it be kept as far as possible from the state medical center here.
VA hospitals are integrated as part of federal policy.
Evans, only member present to vote against the motion, protested:
“Here a state agency created to keep segregation is in the position of being a part in the creation of an integration facility. We’re in the position of either endorsing an integrated facility or denying medical facilities to the veterans of Mississippi.”
Gov. J.P. Coleman, chairman of the Sovereignty group, said “that’s exactly the position we’re in.” He asked that the record show he would have voted for the motion if the chairman could vote.
The governor said, “It would put us in a bad light over the country to deny the land, to indicate we’re willing to deny the veterans these facilities just to prove we’re segregationists.
“If we’re going to be realistic, we should acknowledge that the federal government is not going to change its policy. The question is whether we want to do it, knowing it will be integrated.
“There’s a great deal of difference between putting grown people together in a hospital and putting children together in a school. I’m in favor of going ahead and giving the federal government permission to construct this facility.”
Evans, a frequent for of Coleman’s administration, protested the Sovereignty Commission should not “stick its nose” into an area where it has no responsibility.
Coleman replied that the commission had announced publicity [sic] it was making a study of federal integration policies and could not now refrain from taking a position. He pointed out the study resulted from a Vicksburg veteran’s complain last year that his wife was put in an integrated ward in the present VA hospital here.
Atty. Gen. Joe T. Patterson and Evans were two members of the commission subcommittee assigned to make the study. They reported that state commanders of the Legion, VFW, Disable American Veterans and other such groups felt the new VA hospital is badly needed–and also that Mississippi veterans oppose integration there.
Coleman disclosed the VA has repeatedly asked him to approve a preliminary survey for the hospital. He said he held off giving permission until the VA advised him about six weeks ago that lack of action would be taken to mean Mississippi doesn’t want the hospital.
As it is, several commission members said, many Mississippi veterans are in danger of losing their disability rights because of lack of facilities in the state to examine them and establish their claims.
The motion finally adopted did ask that the VA hospital be located as far as possible from the state medical center here. However, the 1954 legislative act authorizing the donation specified that the VA facility be “adjacent” to the medical center.
The motion, by Sen. Bill Burgin of Columbus, said the Legislature acted knowing of federal integration policies and repeated that leaders of Mississippi veterans had expressed belief the facility is needed.
Vicksburg Evening Post, Tuesday, May 7, 1957
Categories: Architectural Research, Civil Rights, Hospitals/Medical, Jackson, Modernism
What happened to the state insane asylum’s cemetery that was on the property prior to the building of the VA Center?
There is still a cemetery of mostly unmarked graves on the property, and it has been in the news the last couple of years because UMC wants to build on the site. I’m told, but I haven’t seen documentation, that the cemetery was much larger in the 1930s, and that numerous grave markers were bulldozed and dumped when Highway 51 Bypass (now I-55) was cut through on the east side of the asylum property in the 1950s.
Wow, it is hard to believe that intelligent (?) adults (?) went to so much trouble and verbal contortions to maintain their segregationist social system and lifestyle. Hmmm, sounds like some members of a certain political party now trying to relive a romantic dream of America in the 1950s and 1960s, an America that has changed forever.
The original V. A. Hospital was the gigantic Foster General Hospital off Clinton Blvd. in west Jackson and was built by the U. S. Army in 1943 and later renamed the V. A. Hospital after WWII ended. It was so large that the doctors rode 3-wheel bicycles while making their rounds. There is an excellent aerial picture of it on the internet.