Eighteen Black mothers wonder if hospital stole their babies
A mother who was mistakenly told by nurses almost five decades ago that her baby died after child-birth has finally been reunited with her daughter. Zella Jackson-Price, 76, had no idea her daughter, 49-year-old Melanie Diane Gilmore, was alive and well in Oregon.
In this April 29, 2015 photo, Zella Jackson Price poses for a photo at her attorney’s office in Clayton, Mo. Eighteen Black women who were told decades ago that their babies had died soon after birth at a St. Louis hospital now wonder if the infants were taken away by hospital officials to be raised by other families. The suspicions arose from the story of Price, who was 26 in 1965 when she gave birth at Homer G. Phillips Hospital and was told hours later that her daughter had died. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
By Jim Salter, Associated Press
LOIUS, MO (AP) —Eighteen Black women who were told decades ago that their babies had died soon after birth at a St. Louis hospital now wonder if the infants were taken away by hospital officials to be raised by other families .
The suspicions arose from the story of Zella Jackson Price, who said she was 26 in 1965 when she gave birth at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis. Hours later, she was told that her daughter had died, but she never saw a body or a death certificate.
No one is sure who was responsible, but Price’s daughter ended up in foster care, only to resurface almost 50 years later. Melanie Gilmore, who now lives in Eugene, Oregon, has said that her foster parents always told her she was given up by her birth mother.
Price’s attorney, Albert Watkins, is asking city and state officials to investigate. In a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, Watkins said he suspects the hospital coordinated a scheme “to steal newborns of color for marketing in private adoption transactions.” In a letter to Watkins, the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services called the allegations “troubling” and said it would like to help him track down relevant documents it might have, such as birth or death certificates.
Gilmore’s children tracked recently down her birth mother to mark their mother’s 50th birthday. The search led them to the now 76-year-old Price, who lives in suburban St. Louis.
In March, an online video caused a sensation when it showed the moment that Gil-more, who is deaf, learned through lip reading and sign language that her birth mother had been found.
The two women reunited in April. DNA confirmed that they are mother and daughter.
“She looked like me,” said Price, a gospel singer who has five other children. “She was so excited and full of joy. It was just beautiful. I’ll never forget that,” she said of the reunion.
After the reunion, Watkins started getting calls from other women who wondered if their babies, whom they were told had died, might have instead been taken from them.
Their stories, he said, are strikingly similar: Most of the births were in the mid-1950s to mid-1960s at Homer G. Phillips. All of the mothers were black and poor, mostly ages 15 to 20.
In each case, a nurse — not a doctor — told the mother that her child had died, a breach of normal protocol. No death certificates were issued, and none of the mothers were allowed to see their deceased infants, Watkins said.
“These are moms,” he said. “They are mothers at the end of their lives seeking answers to a lifelong hole in their heart.”
He plans to file a lawsuit seeking birth and death records. None of the women are seeking money, he said.
Watkins said he has no idea who, or how many people, may have been responsible if babies were taken. He believes the infants were stolen and put up for adoption in an era when there were few adoption agencies catering to Black couples.
Homer G. Phillips Hospital opened in 1937 as a Blacks-only hospital at a time when St. Louis was segregated. Even after desegregation in the mid-1950s, the hospital served pre-dominantly African American patients.
The hospital closed in 1979. Messages seeking comment from officials at the St. Louis Health Department were not returned.