Audacious, imaginative Walter J. Edwards (pictured) did not know the meaning of the word quit. An African-American Mississippi native with a fifth-grade education, he moved to Oklahoma City from Wellston, Oklahoma in 1915 while in his mid-twenties and went to work for $9 a week. Edwards was already thirty-six years old and a successful entrepreneur when the 1929 Stock Market Crash wiped him out financially. He retained a couple of assets, though—his own shrewdness and energy, and a junkyard he had run for years. Plus, he hired Frances Waldrop as his bookkeeper in 1930, then married her when they realized they had both harbored dreams since childhood to utilize their talents to better the lot of their fellow blacks in that Jim Crow era. Frances’s (also pictured) astute financial sense and overall judgment helped Walter avoid any repeats of his 1929 travails.
In 1938, the Edwards’ shrewdly persuaded white Tuttle, Oklahoma landowner C. T. Hassmann to plat land they were purchasing from him on the northeast periphery of Oklahoma City that they planned as a new housing addition for blacks. The City Council approved the development for Hassmann in a manner Walter feared they wouldn’t for him due to his race. Then, after Walter journeyed to Washington, D.C. to campaign top national Federal Housing Administration officials for the sort of construction loan that a successful white developer could expect, Hassmann Heights became the first FHA-insured housing project ever undertaken “by Negroes for Negroes.”
Walter Edwards with his crew at the Edwards Scrap Iron and Junk Yard in Oklahoma City, which earned him a fortune and sustained him through the 1929 Stock Market Crash and 1930s Great Depression.
Over the next two decades, the Edwards’ would build more than eight hundred single-family houses there. They made sure the homes were affordable as well as high quality, and ownership of them enhanced everything from the community children’s school attendance to their parents’ credit history. The Edwards’ enriched their landmark addition with a new shopping center, parks, churches, and schools.
A storm before the sun precipitated their greatest accomplishment. Just before the end of World War 2 in 1945, a white doctor told Walter that Frances, facing a daunting surgery and possible death, needed better treatment and accommodations than the hospital basement that provided thirty thousand African-Americans their only eighty-nine hospital beds in still-segregated OKC. They journeyed north for successful treatment at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic. Then they returned to the City to build the first black-owned-and-operated hospital in the South.
Hassman Heights in Oklahoma City, the first FHA-insured housing project ever undertaken “by Negroes for Negroes,” circa late 1940s. Walter and Frances Edwards built eight hundred bargain priced, top quality homes in this housing addition. When advised by a Federal Housing Administration official, “These houses are worth more than you’re asking,” Walter agreed, but added, “Negroes can’t afford to pay any more.” By the third decade of occupancy, not one of the by-then more than six hundred homes had been repossessed for delinquent payments.
According to historian Kent Ruth, Edwards Memorial Hospital stretched across two wings, rose three stories high, and included two operating rooms, a delivery room, a spacious nursery, a general examination room, eye, ear, nose and throat clinic, x-ray room and modern laboratory, diet kitchens, pediatric ward, and physical therapy room. Everyone was welcome there, regardless of skin pigmentation. Twenty-six white OKC doctors stepped up to help thirteen black physicians staff the operation. Construction and maintenance of the hospital also provided training and work for many new African-American doctors, nurses, and lab technicians. Hassmann Heights had done the same for rookie black carpenters, electricians, bricklayers, and other skilled workers.
The Edwards’ depleted their life savings to pay for the hospital themselves. Their cost totaled several million dollars in twenty-first century currency. Even after the magnificent institution opened, Walter welcomed contributions only for “patients who are unable to pay.” He said, “It takes away your self-respect when you have to beg for help.”
Edwards Memorial Hospital in Oklahoma City, the first hospital in the South built, owned, and run by African-Americans.
The Edwards’ improved life for everyone in Oklahoma City, and many beyond. Until the end (Frances died in 1958, Walter in 1972), they practiced their motto of, “If you give your best to life, life will give its best to you!” Here is just one example that Ruth recalled:
The father of a large (African-American) family, one of the thousands who went through the Edwards Hospital the day it was dedicated, paused at the modern delivery room and said, “It will be a new experience for me to be able to pace up and down a hospital corridor and have nurses tell me everything is going all right inside that room.”
An early edition of the Edwards Elementary School in Oklahoma City, named by the community in honor of Walter and Frances Edwards…
…and the modern day version.