February 26, 2009

Death in D.C.

The following account is an historian's imaginative reconstruction of one of Adventism's most difficult stories.

2009 1505 page32 capBYARD, LUCY.”

The attendant read the name, then glanced up at the fair-skinned woman in front of him. She was an older woman with large glasses, a dark overcoat and hat, and a kind, grand-motherly look on her face. Despite suffering from an acute case of pneumonia, the woman had a pleasant look about her. The man standing next to her--most likely, her husband--was very light-skinned too. He also wore a hat and overcoat, and had an urgent look in his gray eyes that said his wife needed help immediately.

“Take her to the emergency room pronto,” the attendant commanded the assistants under his jurisdiction who stood staring at the woman idly.

Lucy Byard was placed in a wheelchair and wheeled to the emergency room. She sped past room after room of the hospital, her husband trying to keep up. The halls were the usual bland tan color, and the atmosphere was unusually calm for a hospital in the evening. This appeared to be their only emergency case at the time.

2009 1505 page32Byard and the assistants arrived at the emergency room, and she was wheeled to the bed and placed gently in it. Her husband stood by her side, grasping her hand and whispering to her that God would bring her through it. Nurses and assistants started to file in, rushing around grabbing things and asking Byard questions intermittently. Then the doctor walked in wearing the usual blue smock, an intelligent-looking man in his 40s.

While the doctor began to examine her, the front desk attendant looked over the admittance forms that gave Byard’s vital statistics. He hadn’t had time to study them thoroughly because of Byard’s pressing condition; now he stood in the room in a corner scanning them for more information about her.

He’d done this a million times. He flew past the name, address, birth date, height, and weight. What the man saw next caused him to stop and his jaw to drop open. Under race in fine black ink was the word “Negro!”

The man called another attendant to take a look. He tried not to make too much of a commotion. The young woman he called hurried over, a curious expression on her face, wondering why he would stop her from working to come look at a form. When he pointed to the N word, her mouth also fell open. “Oh, no, we have to do something. This hospital cannot treat her,” she said with instant finality.

The two attendants looked at each other for a moment. They couldn’t believe this was happening. The man who made the discovery nervously called the doctor (who was busy with Byard), first in a weak voice, then a little louder.

The doctor shot an exasperated look toward the source of the noise and waved them off. He started to work on Byard again as if he hadn’t heard anything.

But the attendant called him again. “It’s urgent, Doc,” the man explained plaintively.

The doctor rushed over, perturbed that he had been interrupted from working on a very sick woman. “What is it?” he demanded.

 “Uh, doctor, there has been a mistake--”

 “What kind of mistake?” the doctor interrupted. This had better be worth his time or these two would be in deep trouble.

“With Lucy Byard.” The attendant pointed over to the ill woman. Nurses still swarmed all around her, and her husband stood a little away from the bustle with a prayerful look on his face.

 “I don’t understand; what problem is there with her?” The doctor was about to wheel around and begin his work again when the female attendant spoke up.

 “She is a Negro!”

The doctor stopped short, perplexed. “She can’t be. She looks White to me,” he reasoned. He knew what White people looked like, and he knew what Black people looked like, and the woman on the bed looked White.

 “Sir, it says so on the form she filled out.” The woman pointed at the line for race.

The doctor’s jaw tightened. He had begun to sweat profusely. He cast a look at the form on the bed now, not believing what was happening. He weighed his dilemma. Should he follow the social mores of the day and refuse to treat a Black woman in a hospital for Whites, or should he follow the Hippocratic oath, which is often summarized as “First do no harm”?

He chose the former. “Then she must go! We don’t treat Negroes here. Take her to Freedman’s Hospital, across town.” With that the doctor hurried out of the room, an inner conflict raging in his head.

The two attendants glanced at each other. Who would be the one to do the dirty work? The male attendant knew that he had to do it. This would be the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life.

 He walked the length of the short room, thinking about what he would say the whole time. The nurses had mysteriously been alerted of the situation, and all but two had slipped out of the room. The attendant stepped next to Byard’s bed. She was coughing and wheezing. He could see that she was near death. To discharge her would literally be to sign her death warrant. Her husband clutched his hat in his hands, fearing for his wife of many years. Pity filled the attendant’s heart. He thought of his grandmother and how much he loved her. Then he remembered that Lucy Byard was Black.

 “Mrs. Byard,” he called in the same whisper he had used with the doctor.

No response. The sick woman lay on the bed apparently unconscious.

 “Mrs. Byard,” he said louder, summoning his strength.

He saw her lips move and heard a faint “Yes.”

 The female attendant had by now escorted Byard's husband from the room and informed him of the situation in the hall.

“Mrs. Byard, you have to be taken to another hospital.”

“Why?” Lucy Byard asked desperately.

 “Well, because you’re . . . you’re Black,” the attendant managed.

2009 1505 page32“Son, I can’t go like this! Please, we are all God’s children. Please help me--I am near death.” Byard was now looking in the eyes of the attendant, trying to appeal to his Christianity and humanity. Her eyes, large and beseeching, sought some sign of compassion in the man’s face.

 “Sorry, ma’am.” He spoke with his head down; he could no longer look her in the face.

Mrs. Byard submitted meekly as the attendant helped her into a wheelchair. She didn’t have the strength to protest. The attendant rolled her out into the hall, where her husband stood talking to the female attendant. He also looked resigned, as though he just had to accept his fate. It was a pitiful sight as the four trudged down the halls and corridors of the Washington Adventist Hospital. Although Lucy Byard was a longtime Adventist from Brooklyn, New York, she was the wrong skin color.

Lucy Byard and her husband took a taxi to the Freedman's Hospital at Howard University. The doctors at Freedman’s were aghast to see her arrive in such a weak condition--from a sister medical facility. The medical personnel tried valiantly to save her, but to no avail. They threw their hands up in despair as she breathed her last. If only they’d had more time. The taxi ride, exposure, and the ensuing wait had been too much.

Lucy Byard was dead from pneumonia.

Black Adventists all over the country were stunned. This travesty took place in an Adventist hospital? One of their very own? It just couldn’t be! What of the love and compassion believers are to have for humanity, especially one of the same faith? What of equality in Christ? What of the healing ministry of the Adventist Church? What of human dignity? It was all too much. Something had to be done. This was an overt act of racism perpetrated in one of Adventism’s flagship medical institutions. Because Adventists followed prevailing racial discriminatory practices, a wonderful, loving Adventist believer was dead.

The Lucy Byard incident turned out to be the last tragedy that would occur before the church took decisive action and aggressively sought to address racial inequities. Shortly after this incident Black-administered conferences were instituted. Immediately things were done to set the regional conference system in motion. Although the Lucy Byard event was atrocious, God used it to serve His divine purpose.

Baker, Delbert. Telling the Story. Loma Linda, Calif: Loma Linda University Press, 1996.
Bull, Malcolm, and Lockhart, Keith. Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventists and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1989.
Justiss, Jacob. Angels in Ebony. Toledo, Ohio: Jet Printing Services, 1975.
Reynolds, Louis. We Have Tomorrow. Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1984.

Benjamin Baker is currently pursing a PhD at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The above excerpt was reprinted with permission of the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Hagerstown, Maryland.