Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic: A Glimpse Back May Offer a Path Forward

by Beverly Aarons

The World Health Organization (WHO) ranked the United States 37th in overall quality of healthcare, right behind Dominica, Denmark, and Chile, but way behind our northern neighbor Canada, which ranked 27th, and our European ally, France, which ranked number 1. More babies per capita die (5.9 per 1000 births) within days (or weeks) of being born in the United States than in Iceland, Finland, and Japan combined. In Seattle, there are persistent racial disparities in healthcare – 6.9 Black babies die per 1,000 births compared to 4.3 deaths per 1,000 white babies born, and gaining access to quality healthcare informed by facts, not racist controlling narratives, is almost impossible. In a recent survey of medical students, 50% believed that Blacks experienced less pain than whites because of biological differences.

Black physicians are less likely to hold these kinds of biases, but there are only 45,534 active physicians identified as Black in the United States compared to 516,304 white physicians, 157,025 Asian physicians, and 53,526 Hispanic physicians, so finding a Black physician or medical institution operating with an anti-racist lens might be impossible for most of the 46 million Blacks in America. This is why Dr. Ben Danielson’s resignation as the medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic is so significant to Seattle’s Black community. 

Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic were both born from the revolutionary acts of two women — one white, the other Black. It was 1907, three years before Washington State gave women the right to vote. Anna Herr Clise, a white woman, gathered 27 of her wealthy women friends and convinced them to support the building of Seattle’s first hospital specifically for disabled and malnourished children. Clise was compelled to build the children’s hospital after her 5-year-old son died from heart failure in 1898. That hospital is now known as the Seattle Children’s Hospital. In its first year of existence, at the insistence of the Dorcas Charity Club, a Black women’s organization, Seattle Children’s Hospital agreed to provide healthcare to any child regardless of race, religion, or parents’ ability to pay. This was a revolutionary act at a time when Seattle’s racial segregation was enshrined within the housing covenants of its neighborhoods and in the hearts of its residents. 

Sixty years later, another woman, Odessa Brown, was forging her own path as an activist advocating for the health of Black children in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood. In the wake of 750 race riots nationally in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Model Cities Program was formed and funded with $2.3 billion and given the goal of reducing “social and economic disadvantages in designated neighborhoods, providing maximum training and employment opportunities, and establishing health services for residents.” Seattle’s Central District was one of those neighborhoods chosen to receive funding, and it was Odessa Brown’s mission to convince the Model Cities Program to open a children’s health clinic in the heart of the Central District, a predominantly Black neighborhood at the time. That clinic is now known as the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and is partnered with Seattle Children’s Hospital to provide health services to many Black, Brown, and low-income children throughout Seattle and Washington State. Both of these healthcare institutions were founded in the spirit of inclusion, regardless of race, so to have a beloved Black doctor driven out by racism is shocking for many community members. 

“It’s disappointing,” Jazmyn Scott said during our video conferencing interview. Scott had received healthcare services at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic as a child long before Dr. Danielson’s tenure. “For the Odessa Brown name to be attached to something like racism doesn’t connect for me. Like, it makes no sense. And from what I know about Dr. Danielson … he seems to kind of embody that tradition of what Odessa Brown was back in the day. Really genuinely caring for patients and getting to know and understand these families and their circumstances, and meeting their needs, and meeting them where they’re at.”

But Elmer Dixon, a founding member of the Seattle Black Panthers, isn’t surprised that racism would surface at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “It’s not surprising to me that a Black man is encountering racism by an institution that historically has been racist because institutionalized racism in this country runs rampant,” Dixon said. “And so it’s not surprising to me. What does it say? It says we’re in the same Babylonian situation that we’ve always been in.”

As a Black Panther, Dixon helped found another well known clinic in Seattle in 1970, the Sidney Miller Clinic, now known as the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center. Dixon says the Central District had the secondhighest infant mortality rate in the state of Washington at the time, so the Black Panther Party built a well-baby clinic to help prevent miscarriages and infant deaths. 

“As members of the Black Panther Party, we didn’t accept any federal funds whatsoever,” Dixon said. “All of our doctors were volunteer doctors. In fact, the very first doctor that helped us organize our clinic, Dr. John Green, was the head of neurology at the University of Washington Medical Center. And John was a unique individual. He used to follow behind the large anti-war demonstrators, 30,000 to 40,000 young people marching down the I-5 corridor. And he would be at the tail-end with a patchwork group of medical students who would patch up demonstrators who had been billy clubbed or injured along the route. And we met John and went to his home and told him what we wanted to do — establish this well-baby clinic. And he had us pull up to the back door of the University of Washington Hospital. When we rung the doorbell, he opened the door and there he was standing with all of the medical equipment that we needed for our clinic. And he staffed the clinic with third and fourth year Black medical students.” 

Dixon described the chaos and racial animus that he and the rest of Seattle’s Black community faced during the tumult of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

“We had sandbags all on the walls. We had bulletproof shields on the windows,” Dixon said. In 1968, the FBI named the Black Panther Party the number one threat to the internal security of the United States, so the Seattle branch was prepared for an attack at any moment. “The door was about eight inches thick with steel and armor … weapons at the front door to check anybody in. When they [the pregnant women] came into the office, they passed through our headquarters and they walked by the sandbags piled up on the walls and a bunker up over the head so that we couldn’t be attacked or shot from above us. And they walked back and checked in at the clinic desk. The women reported at that time in their life they felt more safe in the Panther office than they felt anywhere else in their lives, or out in the community. And so what was it like? It was like we knew that we were providing not only this healthcare, but a safe environment for them to come in and get that healthcare. It was an amazing time.”

A safe environment is exactly what Vivian Phillips was searching for when she brought her daughter Jazmyn Scott and her other two daughters to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. 

“I was not fortunate enough to have Black [medical] caretakers growing up,” Phillips said. “There was only one Black dentist in the central area, and that’s where I went, and everybody tried to stay away from him. But as far as physicians were concerned, I didn’t have the benefit of going to Black physicians. So having access to that for my children was an easy decision for me.”

When I asked Jazmyn Scott what she remembers about visiting the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, the first things she mentioned were the colorful fish and warmth of the staff members. 

“It was our community clinic,” Scott said. “We weren’t living in the central area at the time, but it was within walking distance of both my grandmother’s house and my uncle’s house, so it was a very familiar community for me. And I think for me and my sister, as kids, we liked going there because in the waiting room there was a big fish tank. We loved that fish tank. The waiting room was, from what I can remember, just a really inviting environment for children. There were books and toys and activities. … There were things to occupy us while we were waiting to be seen. And I always remember the front desk staff being really friendly and knowing who we were as a family and as individuals. So we were always, you know, greeted with love and care. Like it really was a community, like an extension of your family kind of environment.”

Now that Dr. Danielson is gone, what are the next steps forward for Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic? 

“We need to have control over the health care in the Black community,” Elmer Dixon said. “It should not be reliant upon [Seattle Children’s Hospital], which is a historically institutionalized racist organization … If I were making suggestions to them [Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic], I would suggest that they align themselves with a different institution where they had more ability to control their own destiny. Aligning themselves with that institution that is run by folks that do not have the interests of the Black community at heart only sets you up for this kind of action that is occurring now. So they need to align themselves with an institution outside of Children’s, where they can get the type of care [they need] for their patients. And if Children’s, as they have shown, will not step forward, then they need to find a new partner.”

Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.

Featured image: Dr. Ben Danielson attends a rally for Black Health Equity at Laurelhurst Playfield Park on 1/9/2021. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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