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Historians preserve history of North Carolina communities’ battle against polio

In 1944, just weeks after the most famous polio victim in America, President Franklin Roosevelt, died, a polio epidemic broke out in Hickory that lead to a massive response.

The city built an ad hoc hospital and brought in experts from Harvard and Johns Hopkins to quell the disease – it worked.

Four years later, Guilford County had to fight its own battle against the disease.

“In 1948, when the polio epidemic hit, Guilford County came together and raised about half a million dollars - that's the equivalent of almost five million dollars in today's dollars - and they did that in three months,” said Anne Parsons, an assistant professor at UNC-Greensboro and its director of public history. “And they used that money to build this full hospital that served 143 beds at a time, children at a time. That, to me, is a powerful story about how a community can come together and really try to address a major crisis that it faces.”

In the year of the Hickory epidemic, there were 56 cases of polio in Guilford County, not quite epidemic level but certainly concerning.

By the time Bill Tankersley entered that hospital the county had built, about five years later, it was in full force.

“6,200 children in Guilford County had the polio symptoms, so their parents were home with them, knowing that they had polio and didn't know what was going to happen to them because it took about three weeks for the polio to run its course,” remembers Tankersley. “So you can imagine the fear that created in the parents.”

Now, all these years later, Parsons' team at UNCG is helping lock that history in with exhibit work and an historical marker that will be dedicated on June 15.

“This is a deeply painful event for many people and their families,” Parsons said. “And it's important for us to remember it and mark this site to heal from that. And it's also a place of pride where a community came together and it's something for us to remember. Sometimes it can be hard to remember places that are out of sight and out of mind because they're painful. And, as a historian, I really believe that it's important for us to commemorate them.”

It was a tough place to be, the Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital.

“When you were in here, you didn't have polio. You had the damage that had been done by the polio,” said Tankersley, who went through rigorous but essential rehabilitation at the hospital.

“Yeah, in the sense that it performed a great service for the community,” remembers Tankersley. “I don't know what would have happened to me, if I hadn't gone through that intense rehab. I don't know whether I would've recovered. I, basically, had a normal childhood after I came out.”

See the other iconic American movement that developed a connection to the hospital after the polio epidemic was eradicated in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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