|City/Town: • Birmingham
|Location Class: • Community • Medical
|Built: • 1930s | Abandoned: • 1970s
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (May 29, 2008) • African American Heritage Site
|Status: • Abandoned
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
Table of Contents
Dr. Thomas Boulware, ‘The Old Stork’
The Slossfield Community Center is a complex built in the 1930s by the American Pipe Company as an extension of its health program for workers and their families. It started decades ago when Dr. Thomas Mendenhall Boulware, later nicknamed ‘The Old Stork’, was brought over to Birmingham by Dr. Charles Carraway. Boulware was born in Missouri on September 1, 1903, and received a medical degree from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. In 1929, he left the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee and moved to Birmingham to begin medical practice at Carraway’s Norwood Clinic. He performed many of Alabama’s obstetric firsts including the first pregnancy test administered, the first ‘bikini cut’ Caesarean section, and the first OB/GYN residency approved in the state.
In the realm of indigent care though, Boulware went the extra mile, especially for black expectant mothers and their newborn babies. At the time, having a baby was a huge risk if you were black and lived in certain areas of the city. Slossfield was one of these areas, a district that surrounded the American Cast Iron Pipe Company plant, where thousands lived without plumbing, in shotgun houses built on stilts over undrained dirt streets. Many areas in the district were considered “blighted” by the county health department. Out of every 100 babies born here, 8 to 10 of them would die. In the 1930s, Boulware joined a public health movement to provide help to the people of Slossfield. With the help of matching money from ACIPCO, black workers pooled their earnings together to build a community center complex.
Slossfield Community Center
The Slossfield Community Center was designed by E. B. Van Keuren who completed several projects on behalf of the Works Progress Administration, this one being one of those projects. The first two buildings constructed were the Administration Building and Education Building which were completed in 1937. That same year, construction began on the Medical and Recreation buildings completed in 1939. The health clinic opened July 1, 1939, and was expanded upon in 1941 to include more patient rooms.
In 1940, the Slossfield Community Center won the prestigious National Harvester Award as the best community center of its kind for African Americans in the country. It was hailed nationally, and throughout the South, as a model for addressing the educational, cultural, recreational, and medical needs of working-class African Americans who, at that time, were systematically shut out of most quality services.
Dr. Boulware worked in the maternity clinic for the next seven years, cutting the stillbirth rate on average from 6% among black mothers countywide to 3.3%, and reducing neonatal deaths from 4.3% among blacks countywide to 2.4%. He also trained black physicians at Slossfield, his protégé being Dr. Robert Stewart who became Alabama’s first “non-white” board-certified OB/GYN practitioner.
The Hill-Burton Act was passed in 1946, co-sponsored by Senator Lister Hill of Alabama. The law was designed to provide federal funding to hospitals as long as they adhered to several requirements, mainly that facilities were not allowed to discriminate based on race, color, national origin, or creed. They had to provide a ‘reasonable volume’ of free care each year for those residents in the facility’s area who needed care but could not afford to pay.
With much larger and more modern hospitals being constructed, such as the Holy Family Hospital in Ensley, the Slossfield health clinic closed in 1948. The rest of the Slossfield Community Center closed down in 1954. The recreational center and education building were used on occasion until the late 1970s when they were then used as storage for the Birmingham City school system.
Due to Dr. Boulware’s contributions to the community, the complex was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 29, 2008. Currently, the Salvation Army renovated the former Lewis Elementary School building located across the street from the community center for its new headquarters. The Salvation Army also owns the community center and has plans to renovate the complex in the near future. On August 2, 2019, a decomposed body was found in one of the buildings. Thought to be a homeless person, authorities have not been able to identify the man. While it is fenced off, homeless people still use the buildings as shelter.