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Omaha Magazine

North Omaha’s People’s Hospital: Open to Anyone

Dec 27, 2022 08:28AM ● By Kim Carpenter
People's Hospital

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“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” 

These famous words by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encapsulate his strong feelings about the discrepancy in quality medical care that African Americans and other minorities have received throughout U.S. history versus that of their white counterparts. Segregation didn’t just affect schools, housing, lunch counters, and drinking fountains; it impacted every aspect of daily life, including where Black residents of any town or city could receive medical attention, no matter how mild or serious.

Omaha was no exception. Although hospitals like Methodist, Immanuel, and St. Joseph’s at Creighton University treated some Black patients throughout the year, none accepted them on a regular basis, nor did they grant privileges to Black doctors.

As a result, the Black community founded its own hospitals, including Mercy Hospital, which ran from the 1910s to circa 1924, and the People’s Hospital, which was open from 1948 to 1953. 
Although the latter existed for only a few years, its history offers a fascinating glimpse into one of North Omaha’s most prestigious health care practitioners at the time and the sundry challenges that faced citizens in this part of the city.

Dr. Aaron Manasses McMillan, born in 1895 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, was a noted surgeon, medical missionary, and politician. He graduated from Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, in 1919 and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1923. Both were educational institutions geared toward African American students. He moved to Omaha after visiting his father, Rev. Henry R. McMillan, a minister at Mount Moriah Baptist Church on North 24th Street, in 1922.
The young doctor quickly became a prominent member of the North Omaha community, winning a seat in the state legislature as a 9th District candidate in 1928. 

His tenure in office, however, was brief. The following year he left with his wife, Willena, to become a medical missionary in Portuguese West Africa (modern-day Angola). He was the first Black medical missionary to Africa and often traveled as far as 200 miles to care for patients.
McMillan served in West Africa for 17 years. While there, he secured funding to build a hospital with 45 buildings, including: an infirmary, surgical unit, medical training facilities, and a chapel. The hospital boasted 130 beds and state-of-the-art equipment.

Adam Fletcher Sasse, a nonprofit executive and amateur historian who has written prolifically about North Omaha, is impressed with the doctor’s accomplishments.

“He did all of that, in Africa,” Sasse said. “That’s the clincher.”

When McMillan returned to Omaha in 1948, he saw an immediate need for a hospital to treat the local Black population. An effort by doctors three years earlier had stalled, so McMillan raised the necessary funds to equip and staff a hospital at 1844 North 20th St. 

The two-story building was named the People’s Hospital because it was open to anyone needing medical care. Touted as “a new venture in Negro hospital management” by the Omaha Guide, it housed 25 beds, featured the latest medical technology, and provided general medicine, obstetrics, and surgical procedures.

Unfortunately, establishing a hospital in Africa proved easier than doing so in the United States. “The building was shut down by the city in 1953 for code violations,” Sasse said.

McMillan tore down the hospital and erected a building where he continued to treat patients in private practice. He also became a member of the local NAACP chapter and served on the Omaha Housing Authority Board from 1956 to 1967. He later retired to Inglewood, California, and died there in 1980. 

“It’s unfortunate the People’s Hospital only existed several years,” observed Eric Ewing, executive director of the Great Plains Black History Museum in North Omaha. “I can only imagine that for Dr. McMillan to have even started the hospital, there must have been a real need in the African American community. No one out-of-the-blue establishes a hospital; maybe a clinic, but not a hospital.”

Such was the People’s Hospital presence for its short duration, Ewing said, that locals claimed Malcolm X worked there as a janitor after he got out of prison, although the assertion was never substantiated.

Still, the apocryphal legend points to how the hospital was perceived at the time. 

“The People’s Hospital was a hospital designed just for us,” Ewing remarked. “The standard of care wasn’t there [before its inception]. We weren’t treated. Dr. McMillan believed we should be taken care of.”

Sasse lamented that the People’s Hospital isn’t really remembered today—there’s not even a landmark commemorating the site.

“It went ‘poof’ and just disappeared. It was always under the radar and not validated. But that story is so thick and a starting point for complex conversations. The People’s Hospital represented challenges that are uncomfortable to talk about.”

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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