The Edwards Story*
By Kent Ruth
Two men stood silently facing each other across the hospital bed on which lay a middle-aged woman. The doctor looked around the small basement ward crowded with five other patients, then nodded toward the door. In the dim hallway he said, "Your wife is very ill, Mr. Edwards. She needs an operation. More than that, she needs excellent care and a quiet, cheerful room to get well."
Mr. Edwards didn't say anything for a while. He thought of his savings in the bank. Because he and his wife were Negroes, there were times when even money could not buy the things they needed most.
"Let me speak with Mrs. Edwards alone," he said. , and walked back into the ward.
The scene "was Oklahoma City; the time, the spring of 1945. The W. J. Edwardses were well known in the city. Their 360 unit, low-cost housing development had been widely hailed as one of the most significant privately sponsored projects of its kind. The Edwardses were wealthy. They were also Negroes. Jim Crow segregation, for so long a part of their daily lives, had now become a matter of life and death.
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards talked it over quietly. Their first decision was easily reached: flight to the North where skilled doctors and first rate hospital facilities were available to them. Then they faced another decision they had thought about for years.
They could afford this move. But, what of the vast majority of Oklahoma City's 30,000 Negroes? Often they had worried over the critical health needs of their people, prayed that someone, sometime, would be able to do something. Now they made a second decision: when Mrs. Edwards regained her health, they would try to provide Oklahoma City's Negroes with a modern hospital.
The next day they left for the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minn. Mrs. Edwards underwent her operation and spent seven weeks regaining her health, On their return to Oklahoma, the Edwardses began planning their hospital. In the fall of 1945 they obtained the necessary land; construction work started the following spring. On April 18, 1948, the Edwards Memorial Hospital, a three story, 105 bed, modern structure, was dedicated- the first hospital of its size and caliber in the South completely owned and operated by Negroes.
The Edwardses' decision to build this hospital was the logical "next step" in the lives of two people who have always believed that "if you give your best to life, life will give its best to you." Their far-sighted program of economic betterment for Negroes, begun in the late 1930s, had by 1945 provided 360 attractive, reasonably priced homes. They had built a modem shopping center for the new housing addition and helped to give it churches, schools and a park. Edwards Memorial Hospital was to complete the picture. Congressman Mike Monroney of Oklahoma's Fifth District calls the entire Edwards story "a great example of what free enterprise and a genuine feeling of love for one's neighbors can do.”
Walter James Edwards was born on a Mississippi plantation in 1893. He was one of seven children. All about him were Negroes bound to second-class citizenship by poor housing, inadequate educational facilities and discriminatory economic policies. Early in life he made up his mind to help change these conditions. From, his father he inherited the courage to fight.
J. E. Edwards was a tenant farmer. In 1907, to give his family the chance he’d never had, he left Mississippi and settled on a farm of his own near Wellston, Oklahoma. A few years later, at 19, young W. J. Edwards went to Oklahoma City and got a job as a salvage yard helper at nine dollars a week.
For the next 18 years he was in and out of a number of different businesses: a baggage and transfer company (with a single horse and wagon), a carpet-cleaning establishment, an ice cream plant. When automobiles became more plentiful, he built one of the first drive-in filling stations in Oklahoma City. Later he went back into the junk business. It was and is today the foundation of his fortune.
As his business grew, lack of formal education -he never went beyond the fifth grade- became more and more of a handicap. Then in 1930 he met Frances Gilliam Waldrop.
Frances Waldrop was born in South Carolina in 1898, one of 11 children. Her childhood home ("We didn't live on the wrong side of the tracks; we were right up against them!") was a haphazard collection of lean-to rooms, unpainted on the outside, covered on the inside twice a year with fresh newspapers. Her father was a $20-a-month rural school teacher who turned to masonry to feed his growing family.. When he died and she had to leave normal school, Frances went into the construction business with an uncle. Her education and business training qualified her to help Walter Edwards straighten out his books and put his salvage yard on a businesslike basis. Hired as a bookkeeper she soon became the business associate he had always needed. The die was cast when each learned of the other's dream for their people. Before long they were married.
Frances and W. J. Edwards
"If you give your best to life, life will give its best to you!"
The first big step in the realization of their common dream came in 1938. They decided to build homes- neat, low-cost homes that people could afford to buy. Both knew that without decent housing the Negro could never be a first-class citizen.
On the northeast edge of Oklahoma City the Edwardses found some rolling, semi-wooded land. They persuaded the owner to plat the area and get it approved by the city council for development before completing the transfer. "We knew there might be a fight if we tried to get it 'platted after-we bought,” Edwards explains. You see the Negro always has to prove himself first. Once we started building and the whites saw the houses we were putting up, we didn't have any trouble." They have developed, or platted for development, nearly 175 acres in the area.
Their worries began when they asked for FHA financing. The director of the Federal Housing Authority in Oklahoma City was personally, sympathetic with their plans, but he felt that the idea could never be made to work. ."Negroes," he said, "will never work hard enough or save enough of what they do earn, to payoff the loans. I know; I've had them working for me."
"Perhaps my people have never had the right opportunity," Edwards countered. "We think they can do it."
The FHA official still was not convinced, but the Edwardses didn’t give up.
They ran water, gas and sewer lines, paved streets and built three houses before a trip to Washington and a conference with FHA’s top officials finally secured the necessary authorization. In 1939 the Edwards Housing Project No. 1-245 two bedroom houses—was begun. It was the first FHA-insured housing project ever undertaken by Negroes for Negroes. A second project was started the following year. Its 115 comfortable homes, each with a yard, were completed by the end of 1941, when the war temporarily halted further construction.
The Edwards houses are single family units, constructed of wood, brick and stone in varied styles. Down payments are low (often advanced in part by the Edwardses) and monthly installments over 25 years range from $16.45 to $24. The houses have gleaming white bathrooms, convenient kitchens with modern electrical appliances, neat yards planted with shrubs and young trees.
The Edwardses are looking forward to watching the first generation of children grow up in these homes. “They’re bound to be better children and better adults,” they say. Evidence of this is already revealed in Oklahoma City statistics: A. J. Kirkpatrick, truancy officer for the city’s Negro schools, says “Truancy and delinquency in the Edwards homes have been negligible.”
Of the first group of 360 homeowners, more than a dozen have paid off their entire indebtedness in less than ten of the maximum 25 years. Many more, remembering the depression years and heeding the continued advice of the Edwardses, are keeping well ahead of schedule by paying two or more installments each month while salaries are comparatively high. With nearly 600 units now completed (construction was resumed at war’s end), no Edwards built home has yet been repossessed for delinquent payment.
The. prices that Edwards sets on his homes are so reasonable that an FHA official once protested, “These houses are worth more than you’re asking.” Edwards readily agrees. “But,” he adds, “Negroes can’t afford to pay any more.”
Too often, the Edwardses realized, the Negro’s economic plight is aggravated because he does not know a skilled trade. When construction began in 1938, the Edwardses could find but one skilled Negro bricklayer. Shortages were almost as acute among Negro carpenters and electricians. Under the supervision of a white foreman, they began to hire young Negroes who wanted to train for jobs that would give them a new measure of economic security in years to come. Today more than a score of competent Negro carpenters, electricians and bricklayers are on their payroll. Another score have learned a skilled trade and gone out on their own.
There has never been a racial problem on the Edwards jobs. “Negroes and whites worked under me all the years I was there,” says E. 0. Payne, foreman in charge of carpenters for nearly nine years, “and there was never trouble of any kind.”
With this background of enlightened community service, it was only natural that the Edwardses should concern themselves sooner or later with health problems. Mrs. Edwards’ experience in 1945 was of course, the final factor in their decision to build a hospital. They knew that the Negro’s life expectancy lagged ten years behind the white man’s; that this tragedy was caused, not by any racial susceptibility to disease, but by substandard living conditions and an acute shortage of doctors, nurses and hospital facilities available to Negroes. They knew that at least one-third of the Negroes in the 17 Southern states died without an attending physician, that in Oklahoma City the 30,000 Negroes could use only 89 segregated hospital beds.
The finished hospital represents more than $400,000 of the Edwardses’ life savings. They didn’t try to raise outside money. “It takes away your self-respect,” Edwards says, “when you have to beg for help. But people can give now, if they really want to help; there will always be some patients who an unable to pay.”
The Edwards Memorial Hospital ha two operating rooms, a delivery room and a light, airy nursery, a general examination room, eye, ear, nose and throat clinic, x-ray room and modern laboratory, diet kitchens, pediatric ward and physical therapy room. Rates are substantially lower than those for comparable facilities in other Oklahoma City hospitals. A father of a large family, one of the thousands who went through the hospital the day it was dedicated, paused at the modern delivery room and said, “It will be a new experience for me to be able to pace up and down a hospital corridor and have nurses tell me everything is going all right inside that room.”
Edwards Memorial Hospital offers great opportunity for the training of Negro doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians. Acute shortages in these professions have been caused primarily by the lack of training and practicing opportunities in the country’s leading schools and hospitals. Oklahoma City’s leading white doctors have been completely cooperative. Twenty-six of them joined 13 Negro doctors to give the hospital its first interracial staff. It still has the only one in the South.
President Truman broke a long-standing White House rule against personal congratulatory messages to send a letter for the dedication of the hospital. He praised the Edwardses for having made “a real contribution to human welfare.” Unspoken yet implied in all the tributes paid the Edwardses is one simple truth: the Edwards story proves that race is not a factor in determining the qualities of character that produce success. Vision, ambition, humanitarianism, the capacity for hard, honest labor ... all are necessary for truly successful living. The Edwardses have all of them in generous proportions.
The Edwardses are justifiably proud of what they have been able to do. But it is a pride softened by humility, a pride that permits them to say of the housing development and the hospital, “They aren’t just Negro projects; they’re community projects.” It is a pride that gives them reason to hope that their work may encourage other people to help the Negro help himself.
This article originally appeared in Today's Health magazine (February 1951)
Permission and acknowledgments: Reprinted by permission of American Medical Association ( June 2007 )
Thanks to Ms. Benita Ezerins, AMA Copyright Permissions