The Stamps Family and the Desegregation of Harford Memorial Hospital

Willie Stamps, Harford Memorial Hospital: Two Tragic Deaths and the Birth of a Civil Rights Leader

In November 1960 ,Willie Stamps took his young wife Patricia (Pat) to Harford Memorial Hospital (Havre de Grace, MD) to give birth to their son. Unfortunately, complications ensued and both his newborn baby son (Carlos) and Pat both died as a likely consequence of the hospital's segregated facilities. Still devastated by his family tragedy, Stamps spent the next few years in a successful personal campaign to convince the hospital's administration to change their policy such that such a tragedy would never happen again. The sad events also contributed to the evolution of Willie Stamps as a civil rights leader in Detroit, Michigan where he moved to after leaving the Harford area.

Born in 1940, Charles "Willie" Stamps grew up as a person of color in rural Mississippi. As a child, Stamps' family saved enough money and bought a small apartment house in Chicago. By the 1950s, many in the family had joined the Great Migration and settled in either Chicago or Detroit. Stamps' father maintained a small parcel of farmland in Mississippi where he lived before moving to Detroit in 1955. Stamps recalled his childhood visits by train northward and the times when his family would have to switch into segregated cars upon re-entering the South.

After moving to Chicago and working various jobs, Stamps met his future wife Patricia (Pat) Taylor while enrolled in a mortuary science program. Willie and Pat married in Sept. 1959 and soon after they moved to her hometown of Port Deposit, Maryland on the Susquehanna River to be with her mother after Pat's father died unexpectedly. By mid-1960, Pat was pregnant. Willie attained a job at Harford Memorial Hospital (HMH) working as an orderly in the emergency department and delivery room. He learned through his work that HMH had segregated delivery facilities for blacks and whites.

On November 10, 1960, Pat was in labor and at HMH to have her baby. The Stamps' baby boy Carlos was born breech and in severe jeopardy. But the incubator and other equipment that may have saved his life were in the whites-only delivery section of the hospital. Despite a nurse's frantic dash up a back stairway with the baby to get him help, Carlos died. Pat died also in the hospital after collapsing and going into respiratory distress after hearing about Carlos. Her life would probably have been saved had she had speedier access to equipment more easily accessible to white patients.

Dealing with his grief, Stamps did what he could to mourn and celebrate Pat’s life with her family in Maryland before eventually moving back to Detroit where he remarried and started a family with his new wife Geri. Yet he remained in close contact with Pat’s mother in Maryland who also worked at HMH and continued to do so after the deaths of her daughter and grandson. He also filed a five million dollar lawsuit against the hospital, leading a hospital board member to travel to Detroit to visit him at his home in 1963. In their conversation, Stamps agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for HMH ending racial segregation. This occurred a year before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 which wiped away racial exclusions in public accommodations nationwide and around the time that Maryland passed a Public Accommodations Law to be ratified by voters in the 1964 elections (the state law lost relevancy after the federal law passed).

Stamps’ Maryland experience opened his eyes to the brutality of Jim Crow segregation, culture of racism, and American culture that he had not grasped in his earlier years. In 1967, he took a job as a janitor with the Detroit Edison Company: a job he qualified for based on tests the company made potential employees take at the time. He quickly became a union chairman at Detroit Edison. In that position he also led a group of black employees and began hearing from employees about incidents of perceived discrimination such as being denied equal opportunity for promotions. Soon, he became the lead plaintiff in a landmark federal lawsuit entitled Stamps vs. Detroit Edison Co. (1973).

The plaintiffs won their case, upheld by a federal appeals court. The court mandated that the company pay the employees a collective $5 million in back pay to be split by 301 employees and a host of other actions to rectify unfair practices in hiring and promotion. Stamps vs. Detroit Edison Co. became a well-known case for the advancement of civil rights in employment. As a union leader, businessman and civil rights leader in Detroit for decades, Mr. Stamps was often busy yet maintained his ties to Maryland and visited Harford County regularly to tend the graves of Pat and Carlos.

In 2010 he re-connected with the hospital about a ceremony to honor their deaths and the ending of segregation at HMH. That ceremony finally happened in Nov. 2018, 58 years after the Stamps tragedy occurred. As of 2021, pictures of Pat and Carlos were visible in the hospital's lobby along with plaques describing the 1960 event and its aftermath. In addition, the hospital similarly honored the legacy of Dr. George Stansbury, an African American doctor involved in the Stamps story and a local legend as a physician serving the African American community in Havre de Grace for many decades in the 20th century.

Video

Leon Grimes: Segregation, Dr. George Stansbury and Harford Memorial Hospital
In this oral history clip, Leon Grimes recalls the circumstances surrounding segregation and desegregation at Harford Memorial Hospital in the 1960s. He also talks about Dr. George Stansbury, an African American physician who provided health care to...
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Willie Stamps: Remembering the Family Tragedy at Harford Memorial Hospital
In this 2019 oral history excerpt, Willie Stamps recalls the day he lost his newborn son Carlos and wife Patricia due to practices and technology failures at Harford Memorial Hospital. He explains how the hospital's segregated practices led to...
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Willie Stamps: remembering the incident at Harford Memorial Hospital and Dr. George Stansbury
In this oral history excerpt, Willie Stamps recalls more details about the medical aspects of his family tragedy in 1960 and it's aftermath. He also discusses Dr. George Stansbury, the attending physician for the delivery, Carlos and Patricia...
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Willie Stamps: Birth of a Civil Rights Leader
In this 2019 oral history excerpt, Willie Stamps recalls how his experience with Harford Memorial Hospital and loss of his family led to a new awareness of racism in the 1960s. This also spurred him to step up as a leader in the successful federal...
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Willie Stamps: Harford Memorial's Response to the Stamps Tragedy
In this excerpt from a 2019 oral history interview, Willie Stamps discussed the Harford Memorial response to his agreement to not file a lawsuit after a visit from the hospital's chairman not long after Patricia's and Carlos' deaths in...
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Images

Map

501 South Union Avenue, Havre de Grace, Maryland 21078 ~ The hospital is on S. Union Avenue in Havre de Grace, on the left side while coming from the downtown area between Revolution and Lewis streets.