“The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” — Martin Luther King Jr., Dec. 5, 1955. King spoke these words to supporters after the first day of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, following Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.
Four months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955, Lauretta Emerson walked into John H. Bothwell Memorial Hospital in Sedalia in her own rightful protest.
Emerson walked in nine months pregnant and in labor with her third child. She was also Black, and Bothwell didn’t routinely admit Black patients and no Black babies had been born there.
“I didn’t notify Bothwell that I was coming. I walked in unexpectedly, after hours,” she said. “My labor came fast, and they had to admit me.”
The decision to go to Bothwell was not made lightly or easily. At the time, Emerson was the only Black nurse in Sedalia and the registered nurse and superintendent at City Hospital #2, Sedalia’s hospital for Blacks.
Emerson said conditions at City Hospital #2 were poor and she wanted her baby to be born in a safe place. She also was ready to take on the fight for equal access to quality health care.
She decided with her doctors, brothers Dr. Carl Siegel and Peter Siegel, who were white, that she would go to Bothwell where she couldn’t be denied care while in active labor. She didn’t even tell her husband, Melvin (Pete), she was in labor and going to Bothwell.
“A lot of people knew Pete and I was concerned they would try to convince me not to go. Not to create trouble,” she said. “We (her and her doctors) also went into the idea that if they refused me, we would file a lawsuit.”
Fortunately for Emerson and her daughter, Kay, who was born at 7:06 a.m. Aug. 1, 1955, and became the first Black baby born at Bothwell, there were no issues and no problems.
“I could tell they were reluctant, though,” she said. “Kay was put in the nursery with all the white babies. They put her in the corner, but she was there.”
Emerson’s fight for equal health care in Sedalia started four years earlier when she arrived in 1951 as a 22-year-old young nurse.
Originally from east Texas, she responded to a nondescript employment ad for a nurse supervisor job in Sedalia. It was at City Hospital #2, and she had no idea when she arrived the hospital was segregated from Bothwell hospital, which opened in 1930.
Many hospitals at the time were operating under Jim Crow laws, a collection of state or local statutes that legalized racial segregation by excluding Blacks from white hospitals or by providing basement accommodations. City Hospital #2 began operating in Sedalia in 1926 at Johnson Street and Missouri Avenue. A new building was constructed in 1940 in Hubbard Park.
“There was no mention of segregation in the ad. I was shocked,” she said. “Even Texas hospitals were integrated in the ‘50s. Blacks were in the basement, but at least we had access to the same care and equipment as whites.”
When she called home to tell her parents about the segregation and the conditions at her new workplace, they gave her strong advice.
“They told me to either stay and fight or come home,” she said. “I wanted to fight, so I stayed.”
Emerson got to work caring for Blacks in her new community. She was given a room at the hospital and was on call 24 hours a day. She was the only nurse at City Hospital #2 until it closed in 1956.
“I had to do everything,” she said. “I made house calls, delivered babies at the hospital and at homes, treated wounds and overdoses, and assisted the doctors with surgeries. I even had to sterilize equipment in an oven because that’s all we had, and Bothwell wouldn’t do it for us.”
Despite the lack of equipment, resources and segregation, Emerson said she had a duty to care for her Black friends and neighbors.
“I was a nurse,” she said. “And when we see someone in need, we have to help them. I could not let people go without caring for them. I was raised to have more concern for others than myself.”
A few months after Kay was born, progress toward hospital integration seemed to be on the horizon. According to “A Lifetime of Caring, a history of Bothwell Regional Health Center from 1930-2005,” written by William B. Claycomb, Becky Carr Imhauser and Rose M. Nolen, city officials, the Pettis County Medical Society and the Pettis County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been battling publicly for several years over the condition of City Hospital #2 and the health care of all citizens of Sedalia. Bothwell hospital was also 25 years old and needed more room and improved facilities.
In late 1955, Sedalians approved $300,000 in general obligation bonds to add a 35-bed annex to the hospital. The federal government matched that amount under the Hill-Burton Act, which required hospitals accepting the funds to admit all people, including minorities. The new annex took four years to construct and opened in late 1959; Blacks were then routinely admitted (though still segregated) as required by Hill-Burton.
Emerson, now 92, has lived in Sedalia for 70 years in the same home where she and her husband raised their five children.
She’s had a full life as a mother, nurse and advocate. Emerson left City Hospital #2 when it closed and was a registered nurse for 31 years at Whiteman Air Force Base Hospital. She then worked part-time for several years in the stress unit at Bothwell. She served 13 years on the Sedalia City Council, 14 years on the Police Personnel Board and volunteered for many organizations including over 40 years with the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. In 1997, Emerson was recognized by the Sedalia Area Chamber of Commerce as its Citizen of the Year.
These days Emerson spends her time doing crossword puzzles and calling on friends she made at the Sedalia Senior Center before the pandemic kept her from meeting them in person. She shared with a laugh that “growing old is not for wimps.”
Her daughter, Kay Palmer, said she and her siblings and their families simply love their mom and enjoy taking care of and spoiling her. She said her mother has always been a fighter and believed in what she was doing.
“By walking into Bothwell to have me, she put herself in the position to fight for better health care in a nonviolent way,” she said. “She never stops fighting for what is right even if she has to stand alone. She always had that type of vision, dedication and work ethic. I’ve often wondered how she had the strength to do it all, to be a nurse then with little resources and raise a family. She’s amazing and definitely one-of-a-kind. We have been blessed to have her with us for so long.”