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Midtown awaits a sign of health: new clinic

Living legacies of Mercy Hospital and officials smooth the way - on a more level playing field - for a full spectrum clinic.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- A well-established neighborhood health clinic will move into a new building on 22nd Street S late this year, tripling the number of patients it can accommodate.

Officials and relatives of the city's first African-American doctors broke ground Saturday on the 22,000-square-foot center, which will offer an array of medical services.

"The main concept there is we'll be able to provide complete family care," said Okey R. Ryan, board chairman of Community Health Centers, a nonprofit health care provider that will run the center at 1344 22nd St. S.

Adult care, pediatrics, obstetrics, dental health, radiology, behavioral health, preventive medicine and pharmaceutics will be among the services.

The clinic's official name is the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center at the Historic Mercy Hospital Campus.

Named for the late nurse and educator, the clinic will be the largest of the three that Community Health Centers operates. The others are in Pinellas Park and Clearwater.

"It will certainly be our marquee center," Ryan said.

Its annual operating budget is about $2-million, most of which comes from federal funds, he said.

The groundbreaking represented the second 22nd Street S startup in three months. A 10,000-square-foot education and achievement center is rapidly going up two blocks north and is expected to be completed by summer.

"This is going to a cornerstone for the revitalization of 22nd Street," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, one of numerous officials at the ceremony.

George Cretekos, aide to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, was among them. Young worked to get $3.75-million in federal money to build the clinic.

Clarke, who died in 1978 at age 58, was a St. Petersburg native who devoted much of her adult life to improving living conditions for poor people. She was the first black person to receive a doctorate from the University of Florida.

Mercy Hospital opened in 1923 to serve the city's black population during the segregation era. It closed in 1966.

In its later years, Mercy came to be regarded as a demeaning Jim Crow symbol. Later it acquired an aura of pride because of the care it offered African-Americans during strict segregation.

Participating in groups of 10, survivors and descendants of Mercy's roster of physicians grabbed shovels and helped turn earth Saturday. Among them was C. Bette Wimbish, the first African-American City Council member and the widow of Mercy physician and civil rights activist Ralph Wimbish.

Dr. Fred W. Alsup was the last surviving Mercy physician. Alsup, who sued the city in 1955 to force integration at downtown swimming facilities, was the first African-American to be admitted to the Pinellas County Medical Society. He died in April.

More than two dozen people among the nearly 150 who attended Saturday said they were born at Mercy. An "alumni association" of nurses and others who worked at the hospital is preserving its history. The City Council designated the remaining Mercy building a historic site in 1994 and bought the property three years later. The city is leasing it to Community Health Services.

That 4,000-square-foot structure, badly in need of repair, will be renovated and included in the new building.

Wayne Rosier of the Rosier Alliance is the architect.

The Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center has been operating since 1985 and currently works out of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church, 1310 22nd Ave. S. Some outreach and support services will continue there when the new clinic opens, Ryan said.

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