Caffie Greene dies at 91; activist was a leader in creation of King/Drew hospital

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Caffie Greene, a longtime community activist who played a key role in the effort to bring a major hospital to South Los Angeles after the 1965 Watts riots, died Tuesday at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. She was 91 and had a number of ailments, including pneumonia and heart failure, said her daughter, Penny Greene.

Greene belonged to a formidable group of mothers from Watts who became a grass-roots force for community improvement after the riots, which left 34 people dead and more than 1,000 injured. The McCone Commission report on the causes of the unrest found that inadequate healthcare was a major factor. Greene made the health needs of the community the focus of her activism and, along with Watts leaders Mary Henry, Johnnie Tillman, Nona Carter and Lillian Mobley, pushed local officials to build the facility that became the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in nearby Willowbrook.

"She knew how important it was for our community to have a major hospital in the South-Central area. She was in the forefront of all that," said Los Angeles Sentinel Publisher Danny Bakewell, who knew Greene for 40 years.

Bakewell noted that Greene became politically active when "there wasn't a lot of recognition or acknowledgement of women, period, and particularly not black women. She was an extraordinary woman … someone the community could always count on to represent its interests."

Born March 18, 1919, in Little Rock, Ark., Greene came to Los Angeles when she was 12 to live with her uncle and cousin. She graduated from Jefferson High School, studied psychology at USC and cosmetology and culinary arts at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

Twice married and divorced, she worked and raised a family while participating in the struggle for racial equality.

"I have picketed all my life," she told The Times in 1980. "In my 20s, I was picketing to get black men jobs on the presses at the Sentinel. In San Pedro, where I used to live, I was a beauty operator. We had the first integrated shops there in the '40s."

In the 1960s she marched for civil rights in the South and worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helping to organize a local committee to build the Watts Health Foundation, which sponsored community health clinics. She also was a driving force behind the King-Drew Auxiliary, which raised funds to build the hospital and the Charles Drew University medical school.

In 1978 she became deputy director of the Area IX Council, running a training and job development program for youths interested in health careers.

For many years she was also a field deputy for the late Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, the politician most responsible for creating the King/Drew medical center, which opened in 1972. Greene later served as a trustee of the Drew medical school.

"She was the wind beneath Kenny Hahn's wings in terms of the African American community," said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles). "She had a very keen sense of the political arena as well as the needs of the community at the grass-roots level."

In addition to her daughter, Greene is survived by two sons, Raymond Nat Turner of Oakland and Steve Fred Greene of Atlanta; six granddaughters; four grandsons; and 14 great-grandchildren.

Funeral services were set for 10 a.m. Monday at Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church, 11328 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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