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A Turning Point: Remembering Forest City Hospital and looking ahead to a brighter future for Black doctors

U.S. medical schools reported a record 21% increase in Black students enrolling from 2020-21, but there is still work to be done.

CLEVELAND — It was the first interracial hospital for doctors in Cleveland.

In 1957, Forest City Hospital opened its doors, becoming a key center of the city’s Glenville neighborhood. Its reason for existence is rooted in the racist practices of the main hospital systems in the city at that time.

"The fundamental problem was Black doctors could not access hospitals in Cleveland," Dr. Edgar Jackson recalled.

Jackson, a retired high-level administrator at University Hospitals, remembers the obstacles black doctors faced at that time. Shortly after graduation from medical school, he joined the medical staff at Forest City.

"Doctors were allowed to put on a white coat and go see patients in the Cleveland Clinic, but they couldn't admit them and they couldn't write any orders," he said. "Black doctors were iced out of the hospitals in Cleveland."

When Forest City was established the late 1950s, the surrounding Glenville neighborhood was becoming predominantly African American. Jackson, who joined the hospital in the early '60s, said he facility felt like "family" and could see the difference it was making.

"It's clear that having more minority doctors helps because compliance of patients improves," he explained. "They're more likely to go to the doctor; more likely to do what the doctor says."

Still, this was a time of social change, and Cleveland's major hospital systems were pressured to recruit minority doctors. They looked at Forest City, and admissions fell sharply, causing the facility to close for good in 1978. For decades afterward, African American enrollment in medical schools remained stagnant.

"Between 1978 and 2019, the number of Black medical students was flat in the United States," Dr. Edward Barksdale, surgeon-in-chief at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, said.

Barksdale is also a professor of surgery at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine, and his son Edward III ("Tres") is a fourth-year student there. Tres says diversity was an important factor in his decision to enroll at the school.

"One of the driving factors for coming to Case was the breadth it had to offer and the people they were bringing in," he told us. "I remember our class was one of the largest groups of minorities to enter into Case."

Tres' experience is reflecting hope for a turning point, as U.S. medical schools reported a record 21% increase in black students enrolling from 2020-21. But as Barksdale points out, there is still work to be done.

He cautions that although the new data is encouraging, the increased enrollment reflects only one year in the midst of a 40-year decline in the number of black students in American medical schools. Black doctors still only make up 3-5% percent of all doctors nationwide, and the proportion of physicians who are black has increased by only four percentage points over the last 120 years.

The proportion of physicians who are Black men remains essentially unchanged since 1940, with an increase since occurring in Black women. Also important to note — little progress has been made in achieving racial equity in physician compensation.

"There are miles to go before we rest," Barksdale said, "I'm hoping my son will be one who will continue to carry things forward."

So 65 years since Forest City Hospital was established as a center for Black doctors to practice medicine, the goal of imparting change remains the same.

"We have to increase the pipeline," Barksdale noted. "That is what is going to allow us to move forward. To build more physicians of color ... we have to go back."

For Barksdale, the seed of believing a person can be a doctor must begin early.

"[It begin in] elementary schools to help people recognize that they can do S.T.E.M., help young men and women of color recognize that science, technology, engineering, and medicine is important," he said. "Never forget that you have a responsibility, once you rise, to help others over the hurdles and obstacles they face."

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