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Tuskegee Veterans Affairs hospital, the first to treat Black veterans, turns 100

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For many Black soldiers returning from World War I, health care was hard to come by in the U.S. That changed in 1923, when the VA established a hospital in Tuskegee, Ala., to treat Black veterans from around the country. The facility is still in operation today, and it's celebrating its centennial this year. NPR's Debbie Elliott paid a visit to learn more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The sprawling, leafy Tuskegee VA spans more than 400 acres. It operates like a mini city. There are outpatient medical clinics, a nursing home, a psychiatric hospital and a mental health residential treatment program. It also has its own fire station, baseball stadium and chapel.

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ELLIOTT: In the early 1920s, the nearby Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black university, gave the federal government land to build what was first dedicated a century ago as the Tuskegee Old Soldiers' Home.

AMIR FAROOQI: I kind of think of this as where health equity for veterans began.

ELLIOTT: That's Amir Farooqi, director of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, riding around its Tuskegee campus on a golf cart. Farooqi says work is underway to designate the Tuskegee VA a national historic landmark.

FAROOQI: You know, it really is a piece of history because there was no other VA built like this. It was built specifically for veterans of color - Black American veterans and others who were not receiving the same quality of care or access to care following World War I that they really should have been and that they deserved. And especially this was challenging in, you know, the South due to Jim Crow laws and segregation.

ELLIOTT: The federal government pledged to build the Tuskegee VA after protests by Black World War I veterans. There was also pressure from a larger national campaign supported by the Black medical community, the NAACP and Black newspapers, says George Washington University professor Vanessa Northington Gamble, a scholar of African American medical history.

VANESSA NORTHINGTON GAMBLE: Black soldiers were demanding care. The Black medical profession was pushing for this because they needed some professional affirmation that they could run a hospital and also that they could provide care.

ELLIOTT: It opened in 1923 with 600 beds and 250 patients. But there was controversy from the start.

GAMBLE: On July 3, 1923, the Klan marched on Tuskegee because of this hospital. They did not want a Black-controlled hospital in the middle of Alabama.

ELLIOTT: Gamble says it was all about who was going to be in charge of the federal funding that came with the establishment of a Veterans Affairs facility. Initially, local officials prevailed, and there was an all-white administration. But national pressure remained, and the federal government agreed to gradually hire Black doctors and nurses. A year later, the Tuskegee VA was the first to be run by an all-Black medical team.

GAMBLE: This is a time where Black people fought for their health care. And they stood up to the Klan. They stood up to the federal government.

ELLIOTT: Gamble says that's an important takeaway because when many Americans hear Tuskegee, they think about a different health care story - when the federal government experimented on Black men in Tuskegee, leaving them untreated for syphilis. She says the VA story is not one of oppression, but one where African Americans prevailed in fighting medical racism. It came at a high cost to those early leaders who faced death threats, but Gamble says eventually the Tuskegee VA became a hub for Black specialists to develop their careers. It's long since integrated and now serves all manner of veterans. The campus has also provided economic opportunity for African Americans in the rural South.

PHILLIP LYMAN: My name is Philip Lyman, and I'm a native Tuskegeean (ph).

ELLIOTT: Lyman has been a pharmacist here for 37 years.

LYMAN: My father worked here for 42 years as the chief pharmacist. And my mom used to work at the canteen for 20-something years.

ELLIOTT: He says, for as long as he can remember, the VA was central to the Tuskegee community. It's where he came to play Little League baseball and do Boy Scout activities. Lyman takes pride in the history.

LYMAN: There was no other place. This was the place. This was Mother Tuskegee (laughter). This - it's something. I mean, and you get to thinking about it, and you're just like, how did, you know, it survive? And, you know, I mean, for a hundred years it's been here.

ELLIOTT: VA officials say the tenacity and legacy of the Tuskegee VA can serve as a lesson for eliminating health inequities today.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Tuskegee, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOS DEF SONG, "UMI SAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.