Zella Jackson Price, 76, was told by a nurse that her child, now 49, had died hours after she was born

By Jeff Truesdell
Updated May 05, 2015 01:15 PM
Advertisement
Credit: Wiley Price/St. Louis American

A mother’s reunion after 49 years with a daughter she was told had died soon after birth is raising allegations that workers at a now-closed St. Louis hospital engaged decades ago in a pattern of taking newborns from vulnerable African-American mothers for adoption.

On Monday an attorney filed a petition seeking sealed records so the mother, Zella Jackson Price, 76, might learn what happened to the child she named Diane, now 49, whom she finally met last month after being told by a nurse hours after her daughter’s 1965 delivery at Homer G. Phillips Hospital that the baby was dead.

After news of Price’s startling reunion went public, her attorney Albert Watkins tells PEOPLE, “we started receiving calls.”

Watkins has since connected with about 25 African-American women – mostly teenage and single at the time, and “all from extremely humble means” – who shared similar experiences: a delivery at the hospital, followed by news from a nurse that their child had died, but with no proof of a body or death certificate to back up the claim.

He alleged “a scheme and artifice to steal newborns of color” in a letter to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon that urged transparency in the records of the hospital, which closed in 1979 and historically served African Americans, and the city-run foster care system.

The women – now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, Watkins says – “had extremely credible stories to relate with striking similarities regarding details and relating details which had not been made public, but which had been shared by Mrs. Price in her personal experience.”

“In very short order, it became clear that baby Diane was not an isolated incident,” the attorney says. “It became increasingly clear that there was something extremely sinister and very, very dark going on at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in the ’50s and ’60s.”

At the time, he says, St. Louis had a thriving black middle class but no adoption agencies “that catered to or addressed the needs or desires of the African-American childless couple seeking to adopt an African-American baby.”

“It was evident that there was a market need that had not been sated by the marketplace,” Watkins suggests, “and at some point, there were individuals that were in positions of authority to garner access to newborn babies of color to fill that gaping hole in the consumer marketplace.”

Several women who met with Watkins on Monday shared their suspicions that they, too, may have been victims.

“I didn’t know enough to ask questions,” Leatrice Barry, who was 21 when she gave birth at the hospital, told KSDK.

She was told her baby girl lived only nine hours.

“If she’s alive, that’s going to hurt, because I would have missed 53 years of her life or however long this takes,” she told the station.

Another woman, Brenda Stewart, fears her baby also may have been taken, telling KSDK: “Why? Because I was 16 years old? Because I was a teenager, you had the right just to take my baby?”

“It’ll be 51 years the 21st of next month,” said Stewart. “I’ve been waiting to know about my baby and I just do not believe she’s dead.”

Price, who went on to an international career as a gospel singer, was reunited with her daughter after Diane’s own children launched an effort to find Diane’s birth mother ahead of Diane’s 50th birthday this fall.

Diane was born Nov. 25, 1965, and was delivered two months prematurely, weighing just 2.3 pounds; that weight dropped further, and the nurse came to deliver the heartbreaking news of Diane’s death.

Price had lost a baby boy born prematurely at the hospital five years earlier.

“I experienced the same sinking feeling when they told me my son died, so I didn t question it, Price told The St. Louis American.

I left that hospital thinking another one of my babies had died,” she told the paper. “I felt that sense of loss, and I was heartbroken. But I did what anyone else would do – I went home and went on with my life.

But the baby girl – raised by foster parents in the St. Louis area as Melanie – would grow up to have three children of her own.

After Melanie’s children reached out to Price through social media, the two families eventually mailed off DNA tests, and the match was 99.999999997 percent conclusive.

A family member’s YouTube video of Price finally communicating with her daughter then went viral.

Not long afterward, says her attorney Watkins, “A few people started calling Mrs. Price, saying, ‘I think this happened to me.’ ”

Although no other reunions involving children reported as dead have been documented, says Watkins, “once we started scratching the surface, we realized that there was no way this could have occurred without a coordinated undertaking by folks at the hospital, medical professionals, city foster care personnel, city Bureau of Vital Statistics personnel, the court system and, subsequently, when the foster care system was turned over to the state, state personnel.”

Now, by trying to locate and access the records of those agencies, he hopes to connect the dots for as many families as possible, starting with the original birth certificate and adoption record of Price’s daughter Diane.

“But,” he says, “we can’t say with certainty anything until we open it.”