'Viola!' Events Focus On Area's First Black-Owned Hospital

Nov 5, 2019

This is a rendering of the Viola Edwards Hospital, that operated on DeVilliers St. in the 1920s. It's believed to be the area's first black-owned hospital.
Credit Kukua Institute

Viola!, the story of what may be the first African American-owned hospital in Pensacola, and the events that led to its demise, will be chronicled in two public events this week presented by the Kukua Institute.

Robin Reshard is director of the institute and writer of the songs and narration for the programs. Additionally, it was Reshard, who dug deep into the archives to uncover this bit of intriguing local history about this African American-owned hospital on DeVilliers Street in downtown Pensacola nearly a century ago and its founder Viola Edwards.

“She was a trained nurse and had owned a restaurant,” Reshard said of Edwards’ medical training and entrepreneurship. “Her husband, William, was a postal worker, and they had three children, so this was a very middle-class family.”  

The Viola Edwards Hospital began operating in June of 1922. At the time, it was one of about seven hospitals in the area. Patients received treatment there for about five years.

“In the summer of 1927, a white woman (who was pregnant) came in to the hospital on Monday, and by Friday she was dead,” said Reshard, detailing the beginning of the ensuing drama and challenges of the court case that marked the “beginning of the end” for the hospital.

According to Reshard, the subsequent trials were headline news in the local newspaper, the Pensacola Journal.

“It was front page for months, and almost over the course of a year during this time, because the culture dynamics were a bit different,” Reshard explained.

Noted reasons for the heightened public interest include the fact that an African American woman dared to open what may have been the first black-owned hospital in the community and that a white woman died in her care.

“Then you have this whole national conversation about the role and rights of women,” she said in reference to the era that included the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

“So, I’m guessing it would have been, in modern parlance, it would have been some “juicy” news to people that this happened. The woman who came in also had questions around the father of the child and she was a well-known woman. So, you had all this drama come to a head in the summer of 1927.”

Robin Reshard is the writer of songs and narration for the new original work Viola! about the fate of the first black-owned hospital in the Pensacola area.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

Reshard says she uncovered this story in 2012, while working on a documentary about the historic Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood.

“Looking at part of the research, I came across an archaeological assessment that was done in the late 1980s that was done by the University of West Florida, and the principal investigator on it was Dr. Judy Bense. It was done ahead of this federal project that later became, and the building is still there, DeVilliers Gardens. And, that’s where in that article they mention the hospital, mention Viola Edwards and William Edwards. And, today, the apartment complex still stands there, to me in memory of this hospital and where families gather.”

The search for information took Reshard to the archives at UWF and eventually led to Detroit, Michigan, where Viola Edwards lived after leaving Pensacola.

Reshard was fascinated with the different themes of this story and decided to present it to the community, with two public events at the UWF Center for Fine and Performing Arts. The Viola! Panel Discussion is Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.

“That’s really exciting, because at the panel discussion you get to really understand the history, the culture, the legal ramifications, and the impact of these decisions that were made during the trial and for the Viola Edwards Hospital.”

Guest panelists include Judge Margaret Burnham, professor of law and founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Much of her interest has focused on why African Americans had to flee the South in the 1930s and 1940s to avoid being lynched. The panel will also include Lois Henry, composer and pianist of Viola! Song Cycle; Robin Reshard, writer of Viola!; and Dr. Laura Edler, assistant professor of social work at the University of West Florida. Edler, like Viola Edwards, also has training as a nurse.

The two-night event, which is part of Pensacola'a annual Foo Foo Festival, will conclude with the Viola! Song Cycle Premiere, which will performed Friday evening, 7:30, at the CFPA.

This program is the foundation for an opera telling the story of Viola Edwards and her hospital and features Reshard as the librettist, her first such effort. “Who’da thunk it,” she laughs at the thought.

“That she’s a woman really does add a different perspective to the words and the notes of the music,” added Reshard, in reference to Henry’s contribution as composer.

Joining Henry and Reshard for the performance will be a cast of nationally and regionally recognized opera singers including Edward Washington, tenor; Kara Bishop-Grover, coloratura-soprano; Lisa Lockhart, soprano; and Dirk Gavin McCoy, baritone. Also on the program is Reshard’s son Lloyd Reshard, Jr., bass baritone.

In addition to the music, the Song Cycle will include narration.

“It’s a precursor to the full opera, which is under development now,” Reshard noted about the project. “If you have not seen an opera under development, this is a really unique opportunity right here in Pensacola to see it.”

The Thursday night Viola! Panel Discussion, sponsored in part by the UWF John C. Pace Symposium Series, is open to the public. There’s no charge for admission, but registration is strongly encouraged.

Admission to the Friday night performance is $35 for adults/$15 for students. Information, tickets and registration links are available online at the kukuainstitute or on Eventbrite. Both events will be held in the Music Hall at the CFPA.