Joyce Bolden said she was born at Burrell and remembers it being the only place her family could go for quality healthcare.
“For a segregated community, in a lot of ways it was your lifeline” Bolden said.
Segregation served as a catalyst to open the medical facility. As the story goes, Dr. Issac Burrell, a prominent African-American physician developed severe gallstone problems. He couldn’t seek treatment at Roanoke’s Hospital because of segregation.
He was forced to go to Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, DC where he died.
“Through his death, the other doctors decided we really did need a hospital for African-Americans” said Bolden.
Burrell Memorial started as a 10-bed facility. By the mid 50’s it moved to a larger location that many recognize as a place that provided medical care, jobs and training to the community. Burrell Memorial Hospital remained a prominent black institution until the 1965 Civil Rights Act mandated the desegregation of hospital facilities. When true integration came about, and African-Americans could go to other hospital in the city, the numbers of patients seeking treatment at Burell dropped.
In the summer of 1968, Dr. F.W. Claytor talked with reporters about the state of Burrell. He said the decline in patients was partly due to integration as well as Burrell’s label as a “Black hospital” .
“The hospital was so strongly identified as a negro hospital that the larger community didn’t feel comfortable going there and that was the problem” said Dr. Conrad Claytor.
Dr. Conrad Claytor is among three generations of Roanoke doctors. His grandfather, J.B. Claytor helped establish Burrell. Like his ancestors, Conrad shares a passion for helping others, regardless of race.
“They were looking to be treated at equal. That is something that transcends the generations today, is looking for equality” he said.
Dr. Conrad Claytor said he believes progress has been made since the days of segregation. He said those who practiced before him would be proud to see doctors recognized for the quality of their work and not the color of their skin.
“The patient population is very diverse and people come to you because they want you to treat them” he said.
Today the historic hospital houses Blueridge Behavioral Healthcare. While the Burrell name remains on the front or teh building, the services and patient population has changed. However, the pictures and stories on the walls of the facility serve as reminders of the sacrifices made, lives saved and the significant role African-Americans as well as Burrell Memorial Hospital played.