By Mary Wisniewski
(Reuters) - A lawyer for a long-separated mother and daughter said on Friday he is investigating whether staff at a now-closed St. Louis hospital may have taken babies from impoverished young black women to put them up for adoption.
Melanie Gilmore was reunited with her mother, gospel singer Zella Jackson Price, after 49 years in March in an emotional video that has been seen by almost 300,000 people on YouTube. Price was told by a nurse at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis in 1965 that her baby had died, said family attorney Albert Watkins.
Gilmore's children had reached out to Price on Facebook because Gilmore had seen the name Zella Jackson on her birth certificate. A DNA test proved the connection, Watkins said.
Watkins said he has since heard from more than 20 elderly black women who gave birth at Phillips in the 1950s and 1960s with similar stories - nurses said their babies were dead, and the mothers were not allowed to see the bodies. There were no death certificates, he said.
Watkins said he suspects that babies were taken to be adopted by middle-class black families and is asking state and city officials to investigate.
"It points to a very dark place," said Watkins, of the women's stories.
Phillips, a city-owned hospital which served black patients during a time of segregation and was a training ground for black doctors, closed in 1979.
Former staff at the hospital said they can't believe something so sinister could have happened.
"None of my staff members would have ever done anything like that," said Helen Wallace, a former head nurse who worked at the hospital from 1947 through 1979.
Dr. Mary Tillman, who worked at the hospital between 1960 and 1979, said that the nursing staff "ran a tight ship," with identification bracelets matching mother and child, and only a doctor, not a nurse, would have told a woman if her baby had died. Tillman had one of her own children at the hospital.
Watkins said women were told they couldn't see their babies, because they already had been cremated. But Tillman said mothers were allowed to hold babies who had died, and staff members would pray with the women if they wished.
A spokesperson for the City of St. Louis had no immediate comment. A spokesperson for the state's Health and Senior Services department could not be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Sandra Maler)