By William H. Huffman and Thomas W. Hanchett
The hospital's origins are rooted in the philosophy of the Episcopal Church and the determined efforts of a remarkable St. Peter's parishioner, Jane Renwick Smedberg Wilkes (1827-1913). The daughter of Swedish industrialist Charles Gustav Smedberg and Isabella Renwick, Mrs. Wilkes was born and educated in New York City, where she often enjoyed the company of her first cousin and schoolmate, John Wilkes (1827-1908). He was the son of U. S. Navy Admiral Charles Wilkes, who, in 1833, established the U. S. Naval Observatory and in 1838 undertook the first expedition for the United States in the South Pacific and Antarctica. The charts he made on this expedition were still used in World War II by U. S. forces. Following in his father's footsteps, John Wilkes entered the U. S. Naval Academy, and graduated number one in his class of 1847. After service at sea in the Gulf of Mexico and the Far East, Wilkes returned to the United States in 1852. At the time, Commodore Perry specifically requested him to be a part of an upcoming expedition, but he declined. In 1853, Wilkes came to Charlotte while on leave from the Navy to look into business possibilities. Since the area seemed just what he was looking for, the following year he married his cousin Jane, resigned his commission, and the newly-married couple took up permanent residence in the Queen City.
In Charlotte, Mr. Wilkes owned (with William R. Myers) the Mecklenburg Flour Mills (1858) and founded the Mecklenburg Iron Works in 1859. During the Civil War, the flour mill fed many Confederate troops, and the foundry was taken over by the Confederate Navy as a repair facility and supplier of shells and machinery. Following the war, Captain Wilkes secured a charter for the First National Bank, and served as its first president from 1865 to 1869.
Although the Wilkes had nine children of their own, Jane Wilkes devoted much of her considerable energy to helping others, particularly through work in St. Peter's Episcopal Church. The church has as an ideal to provide both spiritual any physical healing, and Mrs. Wilkes and her contemporaries had seen the need for a church-connected hospital through their nursing work for the Confederate wounded during the war. Thus, at the suggestion of the rector of St. Peter's Church, Reverend Benjamin Bronson,
St. Peter's Hospital started in rented quarters on East Seventh Street as the first civilian hospital in North Carolina. A girl's club in the church, the "Busy Bees," under the leadership of Miss Hattie Moore, who also ran a school for girls, raised $170 in 1877 for the purchase of a lot at 6th and Poplar upon which a new hospital could be built. At this point the church's Ladies' Aid Society took charge, of which Mrs. Wilkes was secretary and treasurer. Through her fund-raising efforts among her friends here and in New York, the original four-room hospital was completed in 1878 and was made of clay dug at the Thompson Orphanage property.
But far from congratulating herself on this accomplishment, Mrs. Wilkes was just getting started. While serving alternately as president, secretary or treasurer of the board of managers of the hospital and always being a dominating presence, she continued her fund-raising efforts which resulted in major expansion of St. Peter's in 1898 and 1907.
In 1882, at the instigation of Reverend Joseph Blount Cheshire, then rector of St. Peter's Church and subsequently Bishop of the North Carolina Diocese, a mission chapel, St. Michael and All Angels Church, was started to serve the black population of the city, and for the purpose a lot was purchased by the Diocese at the northeast corner of Mint and Hill Streets in Third Ward. The indefatigable Jane Wilkes lost no time in beginning to raise money for a companion hospital in the area for the same constituency.
Five years later, in 1887, sufficient money had been raised so that Reverend Cheshire bought a lot for the new hospital on the south side of Hill Street between Mint and Graham for $700.00.
The lot, which fronted one hundred feet on Hill in the middle of the block and went back one hundred feet, was only just to the west of the St. Michael's Chapel. The following year, on December 18, 1888, the cornerstone was laid for the Good Samaritan Hospital with great ceremony. A procession left St. Michael's at 3:00 in the afternoon, led by the black Masonic Fraternity, then came members of the clergy, both black and white, followed by a number of interested citizens and dignitaries. The Masons laid the cornerstone with traditional rites, followed by a service by Reverend E. A. Osborne and Reverend Cheshire of St. Peter's, and concluding with speeches by Dr. Mattoon, president of Biddle Institute (now Johnson C. Smith University), and the black clergymen Reverend Wyche and Reverend Tyler. Looking on were Mayor McDowell, Captain John and Jane Wilkes, Miss Hattie Moore and many others.
Construction of the facility proceeded slowly due to available funds, but nearly three years after it was begun, Good Samaritan was finally ready for use. On September 23, 1891 the building was dedicated with proper ceremony, which included another procession from St. Michael's. A newspaper article at the time described it thus:
This building was erected at considerable cost exclusively for the use of colored people. The funds with which it was erected were raised by continuous appeals through the Episcopal church papers, and by private subscriptions. It is one of the most conveniently arranged buildings that could be built for this purpose, and every room is well ventilated. On the upper and lower floors are hot and cold baths, and the rooms are provided with iron cots with springs.
Good Samaritan's founding gave Charlotte the distinction of having the first privately-funded, independent hospital built exclusively for blacks in North Carolina. This advance came in a period when Charlotte was not the state's largest city, as it is today, but rather was in third place behind Wilmington and Raleigh. The state's two other "Negro institutions" were the government-run North Carolina State Hospital at Goldsboro (1880), and Leonard Hospital, built as a teaching facility at Shaw University in Raleigh (1882).
A 1929 survey by the American Medical Association indicates that Good Samaritan was not only a landmark in North Carolina, but one of the oldest black hospitals then in operation in the entire United States. Outside North Carolina only the Georgia Infirmary in Savannah (1832), Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C. (1865), Central Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia(1870), and Prince George's House of Reformation in Cheltham, Maryland (1872) predated the Charlotte facility.
Governance of the hospital was vested in a board of managers, all women of the church: Mrs. John Wilkes, Mrs. T. S. Clarkson, Mrs. Julia Fox, Mrs. Annie Lardner, Mrs. W. E. Holt, and Mrs. R. Lockwood Jones. Total cost of the hospital was $4,400.
At first the hospital had few patients because of rumors which had gone around about fearful things that went on inside, in addition to the pervasive notion among many people of the day that a hospital was a place one went to die. Eventually the fears were overcome, however, and the hospital did a thriving business, supported mostly by church and citizen donations.