The Story of Viola Edwards
The story of Viola Edwards is finally being told, and the person doing the telling is a woman who’s made storytelling her life’s work—Robin Reshard.
The director of the Kukua Institute, Reshard is well known in Pensacola for telling the city’s rich African American history in various ways. Her interest in the city’s first black-owned hospital, located in the Belmont-DeVilliers area, and the fascinating nurse who founded the hospital makes sense. As the Viola Edwards story is far from ordinary, Reshard decided her telling needed to be as extraordinary as her life—hence the opera, “Viola!”
Reshard spoke with Inweekly about her fascination with the story of Viola Edwards, the history of her hospital and the creative process that brought this story to life.
INWEEKLY: Where did you first get the idea for the opera?
RESHARD: First, the idea for the opera came from wanting to do a different way of telling this amazing and relatively unknown story about what we think is the first African American-owned hospital in Pensacola. I wanted to tell the story a different way. At first, I was thinking of a modern dance, ballet combination. What I came to realize was that while the movement was important, the words were also important. So earlier this year, I was talking to my son, who’s an opera singer, and I said to him, “You know, maybe this needs to be an opera.” Maybe this needs to combine the dramatic effects of the opera and the singing to really bring out the storytelling. So that’s where the idea of the opera came from, as a way to tell this amazing story differently.
INWEEKLY: How did you first find out about Viola Edwards Hospital?
RESHARD: In 2012, I was doing research for the Belmont-DeVilliers documentary “The Making of a Neighborhood,” and I ran across a study that was part of a federal housing project, that turned into Devilliers Garden. It was a subterranean study, led by the principal investigator, Judy Bense, and they were talking about the people that lived there. Part of [the developers] getting federal funding, they had to get an archaeological study of the area before they built on it. The university did that. The archaeology department did that. So in reading and trying to find out about Belmont-DeVilliers, I came across that study, and it talked about Viola Edwards, a trained nurse, and it talked about her having a hospital. A couple of things in this struck me. Number one, why didn’t I know about this, and why didn’t I know about Viola Edwards before? Who was she and what happened to this hospital? Then I read a thesis by Warren Carruth. He did his graduate work at South Alabama, and he did his master’s thesis on this. So I kept digging to find out who she was and why she was big and bad and bold enough to open up this hospital in this very interesting time in our history—not only for racial and gender norms being challenged, but women’s rights in terms of their bodies and women’s rights in terms of voting. It was interesting to me that during all of this, she opened up this hospital.
INWEEKLY: When was Viola Edwards’ hospital in operation?
RESHARD: June 1922 to August 1927.
INWEEKLY: I can imagine why the hospital opened, considering Jim Crow segregation and the need for African American healthcare facilities, but why did it close?
RESHARD: It closed because a white woman came to the hospital and died. Viola was charged with manslaughter, and so the hospital was partially burned after that. She was charged on August 10, by a coroner’s inquest, but it didn’t go to trial until September of ‘27. She was tried and found not guilty on the same day.
INWEEKLY: Wait. Did you say that the hospital was burned?
RESHARD: At the end of August, the hospital was partially burned, according to the paper. It was partially burned. They think it was intentional, even though the fire inspectors said it was probably [caused by] someone flicking a cigarette.
INWEEKLY: But the timing was suspicious?
RESHARD: Yeah, the timing was very suspicious, more than likely, because this was front page of the newspaper almost every single day, for months. She was charged with manslaughter, found not guilty, and was charged with the death of Dorothy, the white woman, and the manslaughter of her unborn child because she was pregnant. So the drama continues.
INWEEKLY: After it closed, was there anything else like it?
RESHARD: In the newspaper archives and state documents that I found, there were hospitals that said they were “colored hospitals,” but it was really just Pensacola Hospital had a “colored ward.” It would be just that. It wasn’t anything that was owned [by African Americans]. It was white folks and black folks, separated when it came to health and healing, for the most part.
INWEEKLY: In the few historical records I’ve read about her hospital, it was usually referred to in relation to abortion. This wasn’t the only focus, was it?
RESHARD: I’m not saying she didn’t perform abortions, but to call it an abortion clinic really stretches the truth of the treatment that people received there. I think it’s an unfair assessment of the hospital.
INWEEKLY: What was her own medical training?
RESHARD: She was a trained nurse. I don’t have it documented where she was trained, but I know she was born at Wetumpka, Ala. My assumption was that she was either trained at Tuskegee or Florida A&M. One of the nurses who worked for her was a graduate of the Florida A&M program. A trained nurse was like a precursor to a registered nurse. You had to do years of training, two to three years of training, so it was someone who had to be very proficient. She had at least three other nurses working for her and a handful of physicians, including one who acted as her fiscal agent and another who lived next door to the hospital, so there were doctors all around. There were other doctors who treated patients at the hospital.
INWEEKLY: Where was her hospital?
RESHARD: 513 N. DeVilliers Street. That’s where Devilliers Garden Apartments are now.
INWEEKLY: So this is your first opera, right?
RESHARD: There was a quilt exhibition a number of years ago called “Who’d a thunk it?” Yeah, who would’ve thunk it? For me, the writing and the way you tell the story, those words affected me. But at the core of it is the story for me that has the proverbial good, bad and ugly. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. So even to me, even as a newbie to writing operatic work, it is still a story. Whether you’re talking about “Madame Butterfly” or “Porgy and Bess,” it’s still a story—a story set to music, so the voices of the performers will carry that story.
WHAT: A historic opera and discussion event about the fate of the Viola Edwards Hospital
WHEN: Panel discussion—7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7; Song cycle premiere —7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8
WHERE: The Music Hall at UWF Center for Fine and Performing Arts, Bldg. 82, 11000 University Parkway
COST: $35 for the general public; $15 for students; the panel discussion is free