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Good Samaritan building at heart of debate

A collectible postcard shows a tall brick building with a cross ensconced on

the side, two nuns dressed in white habits greeting one another on a

sidewalk as two people dressed in street clothes look up at the building. It

is a far cry from the dingy brick building on Broad now that bears the same

name.

No nuns gather on the ill-kept grounds bordered all around by a weathered

knee-high steel welded into a fence. The cross is gone. So are the tenants,

now.

This building that people in Selma once boasted of being the tallest

building in town once included a 69-bed general hospital, a 26-bed skilled

nursing home and a school of practical nursing.

It has a place in history, say supporters, who want the city to keep the

building and make something of it. The building has a place particularly in

the civil rights history of the city, they add.

Others, mainly members of the Selma City Council, agree about the historical

significance of the Good Samaritan Building, but raise concerns about the

white elephant’s pull on the city’s budget amid lay offs of workers and

extreme cutbacks in other areas of the city’s finances

“I just don’t see keeping it,” said Councilman the Rev. Dr. Cecil Williamson

of Ward 1. “It has pulled on the resources of the city, and right now we

just don’t have the money to keep it open. It has cost us money. I think we

should turn it over to the state.”

The debate over keeping the building open began during the last

administration. Then-councilman Reid Cain of Ward 2 advocated the city pull

out of the building’s care and maintenance. The city acquired the building

in 2004 to solve indigent care concerns. It was designed to make money for

the city. “Today, Good Samaritan has nothing to do with health care that was

not already present,” Cain said shortly before leaving office last fall.

“The Good Samaritan is losing monthly for the city.”

In January, according to city figures, the Good Samaritan building operated

$22,000 in the red. The actual utilities ran $2,000 for that month.

Last week, at the request of the city council, Selma Mayor George Evans

requested the utility companies cease service to the building. No tenants

were left.

The actions of the council to have the utilities cut off kicked up a

firestorm, at least from one former city council members, Johnnie Leashore,

who has taken to the radio airwaves on 105.9 in the afternoons to talk about

the historic significance of the building and how he will not let the city

close it down.

Others have followed Leashore’s lead.

Tina Price Smiley attended Tuesday night’s meeting of the Selma City Council

and brought about a dozen other people with her, including for Councilwoman

Jannie Venter of Ward 8, who sat in the audience. Smiley wants a board of

citizens created to help the council work for solutions for the building and

to restore it to the original intent of serving people.

The general history of the hospital begins with the Edmundite Missons,

founded by Father Frank Casey, S.S.E., who came to Selma in 1937, along with

Father John “Barney” Paro. They saw the level of poverty in Selma and began

outreach ministries. One of those was the purchase of the Good Samaritan

Hospital, according to the Edmundite’s history. An online exhibit of photos

from the Edmundite Missions’ archives shows the Sisters of St. Joseph of

Rochester working with the priests, not only at St. Elizabeth’s School, but

at the hospital, too. A photograph on the front of a news letter from

Edmundite Missions and dated January 1965 shows then-Mayor Joe Smitherman

cutting a ribbon at an open house for the hospital.

Only a month after that ribbon was cut, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old

who attended a voting rights rally in Marion was shot and severely beaten.

He was taken to Good Samaritan and died there days later. It was at

Jackson’s funeral on March 3, 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set

the date for the march from Selma to Montgomery for March 7.

King did not attend that first march during which mounted and unmounted law

enforcement officers marched into 600 marchers as they attempted to cross

the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the 52-mile walk. The Good Samaritan became a

primary hospital for those injured in the melee. A yet unopened wing of the

hospital housed religious workers who could not participate in the march,

but helped feed the crowds and give care to those injured.

This history of care for African-Americans in a hospital when others did not

take in black people stands as historic, said Councilwoman Bennie Ruth

Crenshaw of Ward 7, who added she would like to see the site become another

focal point of the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, an annual recalling of the

bridge crossings that eventually resulted in national attention and the

signing of the Voting Rights Act into law.

The building’s future looks as dim as headlights in a fog. Evans said he has

talked with several people about a future for the building, but he needs

more time. Other groups have looked at the building as perhaps a home for

some indigent medical care or a satellite veterans’ care site, but to no

avail.

“I just don’t know what we can do,” Evans said.