Please note, this article uses outdated terms no longer used to describe African American people.
The Miracle of Hickory
by CAROL HUGHES
PRIOR TO JUNE 1, 1944, Hickory, North Carolina, was a quiet, thriving little city of 13,487 inhabitants. Tree-shaded, moderately wealthy, blessed with rivers, mountains and excellent opportunities, it had by hard work earned a reputation as “North Carolina’s best balanced and fastest growing city.”
On June 12 terror stalked its streets. Hickory became a town to be shunned. People, compelled to drive through it, closed the windows of their cars and held handkerchiefs over their mouths. Travelers on trains whispered: “Put down the windows, we are coming into Hickory.” Its streets became quiet. Its thriving business and industrial center thrived no more. The approaches to the town were marked—by fresh graves.
For it was on the night of June 1 that a little eight year old boy named Ranzo Brittain became violently ill. He had a high fever accompanied by nausea and drowsiness. His mother telephoned the local doctor. The little boy’s legs were to become shrunken bits of flesh and the diagnosis was to be: “Infantile paralysis.” Polio, the dread disease, had come to Hickory.
Before another 24 hours had passed six cases were reported in the nearby vicinity—20 in the county. Quickly the disease spread from family to family. Polio afflicted the lung muscles of one of the town’s richest children and on the same day struck down the only child of a Negro sharecropper. Both children died. One frightened mother decided to rush her child to the nearest hospital. It was in Charlotte—60 miles away. The child died en route.
At this moment the town of Hickory became great—for all time. Actually, the town itself had only six cases of infantile paralysis within its borders. But around it, in the county and neighboring cities, there were 68. As a town centrally located in the western counties, its duty was clear. A hospital in Hickory could save hundreds of lives.
Overnight, Hickory citizens declared war on their fearsome enemy; an enemy they could not see and against which there was no known weapon. A meeting was called in the high school building. The whole town seemed to be present and the byword became: ‘‘How can I serve?” That was, literally, the last time many people returned to their homes for days.
The miracle that followed was the result of complete cooperation by the entire community. Present were the leading doctors, lawyers, bankers and manufacturers; present too, were housewives, factory workers, most of the Negro population and the heads of all civic clubs. Two doctors, Dr. H. C. Whims of nearby Newton, and Dr. A. Gaither Hahn of Hickory, began the difficult task of turning untrained civilians into nurses, attendants, and medical aides to fight the battle against polio. To aid them, Dr. Don M. Gudakunst, director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, put his organization at Hickory’s disposal…
…AND still help was needed, help in serving four hundred meals three times a day; help in laundering a thousand blankets and sheets; more and more labor to build and build; a host of people to keep the pack boilers going 24 hours a day. The hospital authorities asked North Carolina’s governor: ‘‘May we have prison labor?” “Of course,” replied Governor J. M. Broughton.
The prisoners came—convicts from the state prison at Raleigh. Several score of them helped clear grounds for another new building, dug ditches for sewage disposal, and helped the water company install pipes. And 80 women prisoners came to become “‘Angels of Mercy” at polio city. The prisoners came on their honor. There wasn’t time enough to bother with guards and iron bars and shackles. They lived in tents and there are no locked doors on tents.
But no one tried to get away. One young girl’s “time” was up, and she was free to leave. “‘I have become attached to the children,” she said simply, and went back to her work. She’s still there.
Many strange, glorious, heroic things happened at Hickory; the story of many sacrifices will never be told. But each citizen of the town has locked in his heart the memory of the part he played when polio struck. Dr. Gudakunst declared in his report: “This is one of the greatest examples of whole-hearted cooperation I have ever seen.” Dr. Trommer, paying tribute to the town, said: “‘In my association here I have yet to see anyone get hysterical, or even unduly excited, and yet they have wrought a miracle”…
…The full cost of Hickory’s polio epidemic may never be known. The brave little city has taken a terrific financial beating without once regretting it. And the amazing fact remains that while the epidemic raged in full fury, the town of Hickory had only six cases of infantile paralysis within its limits—fewer than any other stricken area in the state. Yet it constructed a hospital open to all races and creeds, and willingly took on itself the stigma of being known as ‘‘Polio City.”
By that very sacrifice, Hickory became a great city—for all time.
Citation: Hughes, C. “The Miracle of Hickory.” Coronet, February 1945, pp. 3-7. https://archive.org/details/sim_coronet_1945-02_17_4/page/n3/mode/2up. Accessed 22 August 2023.
- How does the author’s use of mood change after the first four paragraphs of the article? What does that do for the reader?
- “The prisoners came—convicts from the state prison at Raleigh. Several scores of them helped clear grounds for another new building, dug ditches for sewage disposal, and helped the water company install pipes. And 80 women prisoners came to become ‘‘Angels of Mercy’ at polio city. The prisoners came on their honor. There wasn’t time enough to bother with guards and iron bars and shackles. They lived in tents and there are no locked doors on tents. But no one tried to get away. One young girl’s “time” was up, and she was free to leave. “‘I have become attached to the children,” she said simply and went back to her work. She’s still there.”
- After reading the excerpt about the prisoners coming to help, what can the reader gather about the mission to save children’s lives at the hospital?
- The article states, “Any child brought to the hospital door was taken in.” It then goes on to share that only six children within the borders of the city were treated at the hospital.
What do you think the author wants the reader to conclude about the people of Hickory and the hospital in general?
Moderately: in a way that is not excessive
Shunned: avoided by people due to mistrust or disapproval
Vicinity: area or region near a place
En route: on the way
Civic: relating to a city or citizenship
Score: 20 years
Wrought: made or produced
Creeds: systems of belief such as religion
Stigma: mark of disgrace such as on reputation