Decatur’s first hospital, the Cottage Home Infirmary was established by surgeon and pharmacist Dr. Willis E. Sterrs, the city’s first African-American physician. Dr. Sterrs earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and practiced in his hometown of Montgomery for two years before moving to Decatur with his wife, Eva Adalaide Young Sterrs, in 1890. Upon his arrival, he opened the Magnolia Drug Store on Bank Street, and several years later he co-founded the Peoples Dry Goods store. Dr. Sterrs also served as a pension examining surgeon for fifteen years.
In 1901, Dr. Sterrs wrote “an impassioned letter” to Alabama’s constitutional convention condemning the proposed constitution’s disenfranchisement of blacks and poor whites. The letter was read to the assembly by Rep. Samuel Blackwell, but Dr. Sterrs’s “pleas fell on deaf ears,” and following the passage of the new state constitution, he was one of several prominent black Decatur residents who were refused registration to vote.
The Cottage Home Infirmary opened near the corner of Washington and Vine Street in 1906, and expanded in 1910 to include a free training school for nurses. That same year, Mrs. Sterrs launched The Guardian, becoming Decatur’s first female newspaper publisher. Issued monthly over a period of seven years, the paper featured “social, religious, and cultural news” and was a vital source of information for the Old Town community during this time.
Following the death of Dr. Sterrs in 1921, Mrs. Sterrs leased the infirmary complex to George H. Reynolds, whose Reynolds Funeral Home remains Decatur’s “longest running African-American funeral home.” According to her financial advisor Ned Frazier, when friends advised Mrs. Sterrs to make the undertaker move out, she quipped that “Mr. Reynolds’ customers do not bother me [because] they don’t make any noise.”
Mrs. Sterrs died in 1958 at the age of 87 and left “large sums of money” to several community organizations, including an $8,000 gift to Lakeside High School and $3,000 to First Missionary Baptist Church (where she was a member) for purchasing an organ. The Vine Street Boys Club, meanwhile, received property across from the old infirmary building for a club and a park. In 1964, a bank in Washington State notified Frazier of “nearly $7,000” in earned interest, which helped pay for construction of the Eva Sterrs Boys Club (now known as the Maxine Ellison Decatur Youth Enrichment Learning Center).
The infirmary building still stood in 1980, when the Decatur Daily reported that it was “destined for destruction” as part of the Vine Street Redevelopment Project. By that time, the Sterrs family home (known as “Sunny Lodge”) had been mysteriously destroyed by fire.
Head west on Vine Street from the infirmary site and turn right onto Newcomb Street to visit our next tour stop.