The White Plague

Asheville was a well-known and prominent figure in the treatment of tuberculosis in the United States – many people flocking to the mountains for the curative air and leading physicians. In my book Historic Inns of Asheville I included information on many of the sanitariums; what I left out was that Asheville had one of the first TB hospitals for blacks in the United States.

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The Circle Terrace Sanatorium was established in 1912 by Dr. John Wakefield Walker, who was one of the first black pulmonologists in the country.

Born on December 26th, 1872, his mother, Mrs. Amanda Walker, fled to Salisbury from eastern North Carolina during the Civil War, according to The National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race. Walker was born just seven years after the end of the Civil War, and was educated in Asheville City Schools, one of which was open to black students in 1887 thanks to the pioneering effort of Isaac Dickson, a prominent black businessman.

Walker went on to attend Livingston College, graduating in 1898, before attending Medical School at Shaw University. After he graduated with his MD in 1902 he served an internship at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, DC. Similar to other successful black men of his time, Walker had to work multiple jobs in order to pursue his passion – he worked as a footman, butler, bellboy, waiter, office boy, and sleeping car porter, in order to gain his education and work in his chosen profession.

Walker returned to Asheville and began treating patients for pulmonary troubles, namely tuberculosis, which was the leading cause of death in the United States between 1870 and 1910, killing 1 out of every 7 people in the United States. Infections and mortality rates among blacks in the US were even more startling – the city of Philadelphia reported that blacks were 2.5 to 3 times more likely to die from TB than whites. Add to that the fact that in many places in the United States, especially southern towns like Asheville, health care was not available to any population of color; most physicians would not treat black patients and hospitals would not admit them, regardless of social or economic status. And while whites flocked from all over the country to visit Asheville for its curative air and dozens of sanitariums outfitted to treat TB, blacks in the United States did not have the liberty to travel freely, especially in the American South. In his article “Tuberculosis in the Negro: Causes and Treatments” the physician John E. Hunter describes:

the question for travel for the negro of some means and intelligence, seeking health in a sanatoria, is not worth consideration at this time; for a sick man traveling without civil rights, not knowing where he will be permitted to shelter his weakened body and quench his parching tongue, had better, yes far better, remain at home with his family and trust God for the rest.

Although the Circle terrace Hospital was not the first sanitarium to exclusively treat patients of color in the United States, it was among one of the first and only. The Pickford Tuberculosis Sanitarium opened in 1896 in Southern Pines, North Carolina, was reportedly the first. The lead physician and general manager of the Pickford Tuberculosis Sanitarium explains the desperate need of such places in The Southern Sanitarium Vol. 1, no. 4 (January 1, 1897):

JUST think! In one city here in the South, the number of deaths from consumption in ten years was 3,119, of which 611 were white people and 2,508 were colored people, showing a death rate of about one of the former to three of the latter, by population. The negroes in this country constitute less than (1-10) one tenth of the population, and at the same time nearly 40 percent of the mortality from consumption alone. Is this not cause for alarm? The facts answer.

Even US. Army General Hospital No. 19, Oteen, which opened in 1912 and focused treatment on soldiers returning from WWI with tuberculosis, at first only allowed treatment of white soldiers. The Army did not allowed black nurses to work at the hospital until the 1940s, and that may have been due to the shortage of nurses caused by WWII.

In addition the the Circle Terrace Sanitarium, Walker owned a house on College Street and several tenement houses. He also served at the City Inspector for Colored Schools of Asheville, a position which allowed him to supervise, educate, and help prevent the spreading of TB among the youngest of Asheville’s citizens.

Circle Terrace ceased operations in 1917, and when the Catholic Hill school caught fire on November 16th, 1917, tragically killing seven students, Circle Terrace was used for classrooms until a new school, Stephens Lee, was built in 1923.

Lee Walker Heights, built in the early 1950s as segregated public housing, was named in part for John Wakefield Walker.


Other References:

African American Hospitals in North Carolina: 39 Institutional Histories 1880-1967 by Phoebe Ann Pollitt

Life and Death in Philadelphia’s Black Belt: A Tale of an Urban Tuberculosis Campaign, 1900–1930 by J, Margo Brooks Carthon



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