Homer G. Phillips. Painting by Vernon Smith. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Objects Collection, 2016-058-0001]
Homer G. Phillips Hospital, circa 1930s. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N22477]

Homer G. Phillips was born in Sedalia, Missouri, on April 1, 1880. He was raised by an aunt after his parents died. From these humble beginnings he rose to a position of national prominence. Phillips was able to obtain an education that culminated at Howard University Law School in Washington, DC. While he was a student at Howard, he lived in the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a well-known black poet. After graduating from Howard, Phillips returned to Missouri and established a thriving law practice in St. Louis.

Phillips became active in St. Louis politics after joining the Republican Party. During the 1920s he ran unsuccessfully against the popular L. C. Dyer for the US Congress. Phillips was also a crusader for civil rights causes. When the city of St. Louis enacted an ordinance that limited areas in which African Americans were allowed to reside, he brought a suit that resulted in the invalidation of the segregation ordinance.

After the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis, Illinois, Phillips defended African Americans in several criminal prosecutions. During the early 1920s he was one of the founding members of the St. Louis Negro Bar Association, which later became the Mound City Bar Association. His activities and reputation extended beyond St. Louis and the Midwest. In 1927 he was elected president of the National Bar Association, a national organization of black attorneys.

In 1922 Phillips joined with other black leaders in an effort to persuade the city of St. Louis to issue bonds for the construction of a hospital that would serve the black community. Although he did not live to see the fruition of this endeavor, a hospital that was named to honor his memory was completed in 1937. From the late 1930s until the early 1980s, the Homer G. Phillips Hospital provided medical services to the black residents of St. Louis. The facility also served as a teaching hospital for black physicians and nurses.

The circumstances of Phillips’s death are a haunting episode in the history of St. Louis. On the morning of June 18, 1931, Phillips, who was then fifty-one years old, left his home. He waited for the streetcar that he regularly rode to his office. After purchasing a newspaper, he rested on a window ledge. According to the account of a witness, Phillips was approached by two black males who struck him in his face and fired six pistol shots into his body. The assailants fled as Phillips lay dying on the sidewalk. Two black youths were later arrested and tried for the murder, but the jury found them not guilty. Several rumors circulated concerning the circumstances of the crime. At the time of his death, Phillips was representing a black labor official who reported receiving a threatening telephone call that day. He was also scheduled to appear as the chief witness in a perjury case that was pending against another lawyer. The actual circumstances of his death were never determined.

Phillips was a tireless crusader for civil rights and the interests of the black citizens of St. Louis. The hospital that bore his name stood as a testament to the high esteem in which he was held.

Further Reading

Clayton, Edward T. “Strange Murder of Homer G. Phillips.” Ebony 32 (September 1977): 160.

Richardson, Stanley, Jr. “Homer G. Phillips: The Man and the Hospital.” St. Louis Bar Journal 30 (spring 1984): 26

Smith, J. Clay. Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer; 1844–1944. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Venable, H. Phillip. “The History of Homer G. Phillips Hospital.” Journal of the National Medical Association 53, no. 6 (1961): 541–55. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2642069/pdf/jnma00694-0003.pdf.

Published July 14, 2020

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