By Charles Barnes, Lee County Black History Society Chairman of the Board of Directors
National Minority Health Month is observed in April, designed to bring awareness of poorer health outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities than their White counterparts.
The observance was started in 1915, when Booker T. Washington established National Negro Health Week. Many health disparities that continue to disproportionately affect minorities are rooted in poverty as well as inferior care due to racism.
In Southwest Florida’s history, many Black residents helped ensure quality health care for the Black community.
Melissa Jones and Candis Walker
The Jones-Walker hospital was the first Black hospital in Fort Myers, built in the 1900 block of High Street in 1924. A second Black hospital was built in 1956 and had an emergency room, operating room, and small area for newborns and children.
At the time, segregation laws did not allow African-American residents to be treated at Lee Memorial Hospital. Black doctors were banned from practicing there and could only use the facility for special cases like surgery, but only if a White surgeon or physician said they could. Melissa Jones and Candis Walker spearheaded efforts to open the Black hospital, with sales of pies and concerts helping to raise funds.
The Jones-Walker hospital operated until 1968, when the facility was closed by court order so that all patients, regardless of race, could be treated at Lee Memorial Hospital.
Registered nurse Diane Spears worked as a migrant farmworker in the fields of Immokalee and was one of the first African American nurses to work for Lee Health. She was recognized with a proclamation by the City of Fort Myers in 2021 for 50 years of service at Lee Health.
Spears, a nursing director and leader, started at Lee Health as a patient care technician. She was also the first African American in Southwest Florida to graduate from Edison Community College with a degree in nursing. Throughout her career, she mentored many women, particularly minorities.
She also stayed close to the Black community, actively organizing and facilitating health clinics, events and forums throughout the area to break down barriers and deepen relationships within the Black community. She helped establish the 30-year-old Annual Omega Family Health Forum, which offers education and screening.
Spears also helped to open the first hematology/oncology unit in Lee County and directed the opening of the endoscopy unit at HealthPark Medical Center.
May Ola Wells-Diggs, Lena Pointer and Ruth Williams
Black Maternal Health Week is April 11 to 17, recognizing that Black mothers are three times more likely than White mothers to die from pregnancy or post-pregnancy related issues.
During segregation, midwives were trained by The Florida Health Department in the 1930s to take care of families who did not have access to medical care due to poverty or segregation.
But the history of African-American midwives dates to the early 17th century, when the slave trade brought women with generations of knowledge about childbirth to America.
These birth workers traditionally occupied a prominent position in African-American communities, serving as healers and spiritual leaders while maintaining extensive social networks.
In Lee County, May Ola Wells-Diggs delivered more than 5,000 babies from 1937 to 1973 in Lee County. At first, she charged just $15 per birth before raising her fee to $75 in 1972. Lena Pointer delivered more than 2,000 babies from the 1950s to 1970s. Ruth Williams was also a midwife, delivering babies from the 1950s to 1970s.
Other notable Black health care pioneers include Dr. Emmit E. Velasco, one of the first Black doctors to practice medicine in Lee County, serving the Black community from the 1920s to 1950s. The Velasco Village neighborhood in Dunbar was renamed for Velasco, who opened his office on Cranford Avenue in the 1920s. The area’s first pharmacy was Edwin’s Pharmacy, owned by pharmacist Lewis “Doc” Carter III, Fort Myers’ first Black pharmacist.
About the Author
Charles Barnes is chairperson of the Lee County Black History Society, which provides a way for African Americans in Lee County to learn about and understand the impact of the area’s Black history and culture.