|City/Town: • Alexander|
|Location Class: • Church • Government • Hospital • Residential • School|
|Year Built: • 1930 | Year Abandoned: • 2011|
|Status: • Abandoned • Endangered|
|Photojournalist: • Michael Schwarz • Ginger Beck • Grant King|
Pictures of the facility in 2014.
McRae Sanatorium History
If you go to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and look up the Alexander Human Development Center you won’t find the facility’s full history. This official history of Arkansas simply lists the facility as coming into existence as a Human Development Center in the late 1960’s. The facility’s true origin and largely forgotten history, however, actually dates all the way back into the early 1930’s.
In 1879, the Arkansas Medical Society began trying to convince the legislature to create a State Board of Health. In 1881, the legislature finally saw the wisdom of creating a state board to monitor disease, uphold sanitary conditions and gather vital statistics. Senator Kie Oldham of Pulaski County—a sufferer of tuberculosis— initiated the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium in 1910. Though Oldham succumbed to tuberculosis in 1911, his efforts in founding the Sanatorium in Booneville ensured its continuous operation for the next sixty-two years. In its first 40 years of operation, there was always a waiting list at the tuberculosis sanatorium. In time, The Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium literally became the largest such facility throughout the entire United States as its dedicated staff tirelessly pioneered medical research, treatment, and techniques that would benefit tuberculosis sufferers the world over and eventually play key roles in the elimination of the disease’s threat all together. But this isn’t the story of that tuberculosis sanatorium…
The first director of the black sanatorium was African-American physician Hugh A. Browne of Wheatley-Provident Hospital in Kansas City. In the later 1930’s the Works Progress Administration constructed a new Chambers Building for performing surgeries and to also function as a dining and craft hall. In 1940, the The McRae Sanatorium’s operations expanded again as it began providing a nurses’ training program. Then, in 1960, the sanatorium added a children’s building and auxiliary nurses’ home building. Dr. Browne himself finally retired in 1962, three years after suffering a stroke. The patient population at that time had grown to 390. At its height, the sanatorium held 411 beds.
In 1967, and after thirty-seven years of racial segregation, the McRae Sanatorium was finally allowed to merge with the Booneville State Sanatorium. The much larger Booneville facility itself then closed in 1972, just five years later, as tuberculosis treatment regimens made the residential facility obsolete.
As for the McRae Memorial Tuberculosis Sanatorium for African Americans, it was converted into the Alexander Human Development Center. It is at this point that the facility’s history begins in the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
Alexander Human Development Center History
Prior to the creation of human development centers (HDCs)—the Arkansas State Hospital provided long-term care to individuals with intellectual disabilities as well as to individuals with severe mental illness. And, as a state, Arkansas lagged well behind other states in development of facilities specializing in the care of the intellectually disabled. The Arkansas Children’s Colony – which would later be renamed as the Conway Human Development Center – was finally opened in the late 1950s. Within its first year of operation alone the facility received numerous accolades for its physical construction as well as for its progressive curriculum for residents. Soon after, several other Southern states were following in the footsteps of Arkansas by making preparations for their own children’s colonies. This was the launch of what would become the human development centers.
Toward these ends, the McRae Memorial Tuberculosis Sanatorium for African Americans was converted into The Alexander Human Development Center in 1968, thus becoming a part of the Arkansas Department of Human Services for individuals with developmental disabilities. The center offered occupational, physical and speech therapies and provided psychological assessment, medical care and rehabilitative services. The Alexander Human Development Center also offered community development and outreach services. Throughout the state, the Arkansas Department of Human Services provided (and still provides) Medicaid-funded services to more than 7,500 adults and children with developmental disabilities. The department also offers crisis intervention, emotional support and temporary housing services. Furthermore, it works in assistance with certified nurses, social workers and medical secretaries. So, suffice it to say, facility that housed The McRae Memorial Tuberculosis Sanatorium for African Americans continued to be used in constructively beneficial ways well after the sanatorium itself was merged with the Booneville facility. And, while the Booneville facility was almost completely closed in 1972, the facility in Alexander continued to be actively used for nearly 40 years thereafter.
But this phase of the facility’s existence would also came to an end, and not necessarily a good one. Amidst a series of failed safety inspections, the loss of its Medicaid certification, and patient rape allegations and investigations on the part of the staff, what had become the Alexander Human Development Center was finally closed in 2011. This actually caused a most unpleasant stir within the community and region surrounding the facility and especially amongst families who had come to depend upon the facility to assist them with the care of loved ones in need of its various services. Complaints were made, objections were registered, and petitions were circulated, but in the end the state followed through with its plan to close the facility, thus ending its eighty years of public service. The patients that were still being served by the center were placed in a wide range of alternative care placements and community-based care facilities with those most in need being transferred to one of the state’s four other remaining Human Treatment Centers. All of the center’s employees where transferred to other working assignments with a number of them being allowed to follow after the patients who had been in their care at Alexander. And the State of Arkansas, having acknowledged that the care being provided in Alexander was substandard and inadequate and that the employee actions and practices there were immoral and unacceptable, planned on redirecting funding from the closed facility to the remaining four open ones in the hopes of making certain that higher levels of care and practices might be maintained within them.
Today the facility in Alexander sits empty. The institution born as a diminutive symbol of racial prejudice and segregation, thus grew to denote one of the darker chapters of our nation’s history. Eventually rising up to become a source of hope and service for the hurting, suffering, and disadvantaged Arkansans in most need of its services, and ultimately crumbled amidst a cloud of safety code violations and immoral employee misconduct charges. It now quietly waits in an air of hollow expectation for whatever turn fate has next in store for it. Numerous quiet symbols and knowing markers remain throughout the facility’s now abandoned compound, hauntingly attesting to the many uses that it has seen and the various phases that it went through over the course of its 80 years. The facility’s architecture dating back to its sanatorium years. A plague in a lobby denoting Dr. Hugh Browne’s thirty-plus years of service as superintendent. The many and varied tools and implements denoting the compound’s later care of and service to the needy, suffering, and disadvantaged and it’s all still there. Little has been moved and even less has been changed.
In our society an eighty-year-old person would automatically be granted the highest levels of respect, interest, and care. But what about an eighty-year-old facility? Especially an eighty-year-old facility with all of the historical and cultural significance of the one in Alexander? What level of care, concern, and respect will it receive?