One woman and her long-lost daughter may have brought a dark chapter from St. Louis history to light.
As a 26-year-old woman in 1965, Zella Jackson Price was told that her daughter had died shortly after birth. Nearly 50 years later, though, Jackson Price learned that her daughter has been alive all along.
Melanie Diane Gilmore, also known as “Baby Diane,” is now 49 and living in Oregon. After mother and daughter reunited last month, thanks to some Facebook sleuthing by Gilmore’s children, dozens of other women have come forward with eerily similar and potentially tragic stories.
They had all given birth to children at the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which was at one point the only hospital dedicated to serving African Americans in racially segregated St. Louis.
Like Jackson Price, who delivered her daughter prematurely, they were told by nurses at the now-closed facility that their babies had died. Nearly all of them say they never saw the newborns again and never received death certificates, according to attorney Albert Watkins, who is representing Jackson Price.
Those women — about 25 of them — reached out to the lawyer’s office after hearing the story of Jackson Price’s reunion with her daughter.
And there are likely many more women with similar stories. St. Louis officials said Tuesday that they have set up a phone line to begin taking calls from women who suspect that their stories fit the pattern.
“All of them want answers to help them understand a half a century of pain, agony and the feeling of a mother that something was wrong,” Watkins told The Washington Post in an interview.
In a petition filed in Missouri Circuit Court on Monday, Watkins asked a judge to unseal documents that he believes could help explain what happened to Jackson Price’s daughter.
Neither Watkins nor Jackson Price know for sure what information the documents contain. But Watkins suspects that they are adoption papers, dated sometime around 1984 or 1985, which would have been when “Baby Diane” was over the age of 18.
Only Gilmore’s original birth certificate might have contained her birth mother’s name. And when an adoption is finalized, that birth certificate is sealed by a court.
For that reason, the fact that Gilmore finally found her mother is an unlikely story.
As a child, Gilmore recalled later, she accidentally saw a copy of her original birth certificate that had the name “Jackson” written on it, Watkins said. Years later, as Gilmore approached her 50th birthday, her children set out to find her biological mother with that kernel of information.
With the help of Facebook, they eventually they found Jackson Price, now an accomplished, 76-year-old gospel singer living in suburban St. Louis.
Their reunion in April was tearful and bittersweet.
“She’s deaf and can’t hear because of measles and I think if she had been with me this would not have happened,” Jackson Price told KSDK in April, moments before they reunited. “I want to see her roll down this street. I guess I might snatch her out of the car.”
When KSDK broadcast details of the reunion, other women began calling into the station — then to Jackson Price’s lawyer’s office — with their own stories.
City and state officials are now being pressed to find answers to the difficult questions dozens of mothers are now asking. Was there was an illegal conspiracy within the hospital to traffic African American babies? And if so, are the infants who they thought were dead really alive and well?
“If one more child is found, it’s worth it,” said Watkins, who said he is providing free legal advice to the women who contact his office.
He believes that the evidence suggests that these women were tragically taken advantage of, as was Jackson Price.
“My suggestion is that there are number of children out there that were taken from their mothers at birth and sold in the marketplace,” Watkins said.
If he is right, this story threatens to tarnish the reputation of a facility that once stood as a symbol of the need for civil and human rights for black Americans.
Named after Homer G. Phillips, a black attorney in St. Louis, the hospital was the realization of a cause Phillips had championed in the years before he was murdered in 1931. No longer would black people in St. Louis be relegated to being treated in the basements of the city hospitals. The Homer G. Phillips institution was dedicated to treating black patients, training black doctors and employing black nurses.
But at the same time, according to Watkins, the black middle class in St. Louis had little or no access to adoption agencies to help families who couldn’t have children of their own. Watkins believes the demand might have created an incentive to take newborn babies born to vulnerable mothers and sell them on the black market.
Ortha Mae Brand was just 15 years old when she gave birth to a baby at that hospital in 1967. The child was premature enough that she was kept at the hospital while Brand was sent home, according to the Associated Press.
One day, her phone rang: It was a nurse telling her that her daughter had died.
Another woman, Brenda Stewart, was just 16 when she gave birth to a daughter at the hospital. She was also told by a nurse that her child had died.
“They told me I didn’t need a baby,” Stewart said, according to the AP. “I was too young to have a baby. They told me my parents didn’t need another mouth to feed.
“I know my baby’s not dead.”
People who worked at the hospital at the time find the stories hard to believe.
“None of my staff members would have ever done anything like that,” Helen Wallace, a former head nurse who worked at the hospital from 1947 until it closed in 1979, told Reuters.
Mary Tillman, a doctor who worked at the hospital in the 1960s and 1970s, told KSDK that the hospital’s procedures were meticulously followed — with every mother and child getting matching bracelets. Tillman added that doctors, not nurses, were usually responsible for informing a mother if their child had died.
The task of fact-finding after so many years will be difficult. All but one of the women who contacted Watkins say they never received a death certificate for their children, and typically, when adoptions are finalized, new, amended birth certificates are issued with the child’s new name and those of the adoptive parents. By state law, the original birth certificate can only be unsealed if an adopted adult requests them.
Yet for many of these women, Jackson Price’s story has opened a door that can now only be closed with the truth.
“Too many years have passed for me to be angry about it,” Brand, who is now 63, told KSDK. “I just want to know the truth.”