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When it opened in 1919, Dunbar Hospital was a symbol of self-determination and achievement for Detroit’s first black doctors.

Today, it’s up for grabs in the Wayne County tax auction.

Even in this forlorn moment, the building at 580 Frederick reflects a century-old spirit of ambition and resilience. Its Romanesque brick arches, handsome stone porch and other exterior details speak to its proud past, even as boards on some windows attest to neglect and loss.

“It was a really important institution in black Detroit. Today, it’s a physical reminder of the power of segregation and how African-Americans built communities in defiance of that segregation,” says historian Kevin Boyle. The hospital figures in his award-winning book, “Arc of Justice,” a vivid social history about race, Detroit and Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician whose effort to move into a white neighborhood in the 1920s erupted into violence and a legendary murder trial.

But the Detroit Medical Society, a group of African-American doctors, the building’s most recent owners, say they are stunned to find the building foreclosed upon by the county and up for sale. Since their group bought the site in 1978 for $3,000, they say they’ve spent over $400,000 on restoration that complies with historic designation codes, as part of their plan to make it a museum. Now they are likely to lose it over a $1,700 water bill they say they never received.

“There is a real shock value to all of this. We didn’t know anything about foreclosure, or the auction, until the other day,” said Dr. Lonnie Joe Jr., a board member of the medical society. Although the sale was mentioned on blogs including Motor City Muckraker and Curbed Detroit, the doctors say they remained unaware of the auction sale until The Detroit News called last Friday.

Wayne County doesn’t dispute the physicians’ account, but refused to accept a certified check for $3,800 on Monday — the overdue bill, plus late fees — because the auction clock is ticking. “I understand how upset they must be. We were working with people up to August (the deadline is April 1) but our attitude is that we have to be fair to the people who are trying to buy these properties,” says David Szymanski, chief deputy treasurer. “It’s sad to see (it in such condition) because it’s such a rich part of African-American heritage, and all of our heritage, as Detroiters.”

The society’s president says that a broken water pipe three years ago led the society to vacate the building, but the owners have continued to maintain the structure and landscaping. Vacancy was expensive: A wrought iron fence they installed disappeared, windows were broken with rocks. “We watched as that fence was taken apart, rung by rung (over time),” says Dr. Aaron Maddox, a Southfield internist who is the society president.

Built in 1892 as a residence for Charles W. Warren, who owned one of the city’s genteel jewelry stores, the elaborate home was bought by a group of black physicians and opened as Dunbar Hospital in 1919. By the time it became a hospital, the neighborhood near Brush Park was opening to the African-American elite, as thousands of black workers moved north during World War I. It was named for Paul Laurence Dunbar, a poet and son of slaves who achieved popular and critical success at the turn of the 20th century.

After the doctors outgrew the hospital and moved east in 1928, the Frederick Street property was bought by Charles Diggs Sr., the “House of Diggs” funeral home operator and state senator. In 1978, the Detroit Medical Society bought the building, then a decrepit husk, and set about trying to restore its luster.

The former hospital is on the federal and state registers of historic places, and only a few blocks from the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, in the Frederick Avenue Historic District, a neighborhood that’s reviving quickly.

Several of Detroit’s most famous historic sites are neglected, including the Model T factory in Highland Park and Fort Wayne, which is used for county storage. But the former hospital is a uniquely important site, too, because its existence is a reminder of the unremitting struggle for civil rights and the obstacles set in the path of even Detroit’s highest-achieving black residents.

Ossian Sweet, like other black physicians in the 1920s, performed surgery at the Frederick Street hospital, which was also a training ground for nurses. Dr. Albert B. Cleage, another founding physician, was on the hospital’s board: His son, Albert Cleage Jr. was the founder of the Church of the Black Madonna. Cleage’s granddaughter, Kristin Cleage Williams, has collected several documents about the hospital, including a speech Cleage Sr. gave to a class of black nurses. “You are entering upon a great service when our race needs you most,” Cleage Sr. said in the speech, published on Cleage Williams’ blog, Finding Eliza.

“It is sad that the building has not been and is not now a museum where visitors could see a replica of the old hospital as it was when it was a working hospital,” she said in an email from her Atlanta home. “I hope that some group will buy it and do something with it that will honor and share the history that those doctors made almost 100 years ago.”

Boyle, who was born in Detroit and now is a professor of history at Northwestern University, sees the hospital’s status “as a transition. It’s really one of the sad things about what happens in Detroit, and has for decades, that there’s not the sort of sense of history, and appreciation for it, that there ought to be.”

The doctors say that’s not true: They revere the structure and want desperately to reclaim it and see it restored and open to the public.

By Tuesday, bidding was up to $12,000 on 580 Frederick — a small amount, a scribble in a checkbook, for a historic building that hasn’t yet lost its power to inspire and inform new generations.

LBerman@detroitnews.com

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