Looking Back: Black Nurses Struggle for Admission to Professional Schools

By Burnette, Georgia | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2004 | Go to article overview
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Looking Back: Black Nurses Struggle for Admission to Professional Schools

Burnette, Georgia, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Historically, African American nurses have had three strikes against them. They were Black, female and in a profession still striving for equality and respect within the medical community. The quest for respect and acceptance has been an uphill battle all the way, but fortunately things are moving in the right direction.

The history of nursing in America as taught in our schools usually begins with the story of Florence Nightingale and her assistants during the Crimean War. But women of all cultures have nursed the sick from time immemorial. Nursing was simply another aspect of family life. If by chance one became particularly adept at the task, word of these skills became known throughout the community and that person was called upon in special circumstances.

When I attended nursing school during the 1950's, the history and struggles of Black nurses were accorded a few pages, if any at all, in most texts. According to Althea Davis in her book, Early Black American Leaders in Nursing: (2)

           Nursing history as presented in the past taught only selected
       aspects of nursing history while excluding Black nursing leaders
       and Black nurses experience, as evidenced in nursing history
       texts. On rare occasions these texts included fleeting attention
       to or inaccurate information about Black nurses. But nurse
       historians and historians have begun to fill the void.

Over time as values changed and legislation was enacted, nursing texts began to include a broader and more enlightened scope of information about the Black nurse and her struggle for acceptance into the larger professional medical community.

Nevertheless, the history of Black nurses cannot be told in isolation, since cultural values of the time heavily impacted the struggle. In 1776, the statement by our founding fathers, "all men are created equal," did not apply to women. For most of the 19th century wives were considered little more than property. Women were considered unsuitable for intellectual pursuits, thus marriage and childbearing were deemed their primary function. Females of the time had few options, and were denied the right to vote until passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. (3)


The Black population of slaves, however, had no rights at all. Indeed in the Dred-Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court held that Blacks were not citizens of the United States and thus were not entitled to enjoy constitutional rights. Later, for purposes of determining the number of legislators each state could send to the House of Representatives, the Constitution in 1787, declared a slave as 3/5 a person. (4) During Reconstruction, however, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) extended citizenship to African Americans with governmental protection. But that promise was negated with the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated the principle of "separate but equal" did not violate the Constitution.

           This decision forced African Americans to remain second-class
       citizens by allowing the South to continue to enforce segregation
       by law in schools, housing, jobs, transportation, public parks,
       and public hospitals. After Plessy, the rights of Blacks were
       placed at the mercy of state governments for the next fifty
       years. (5)


Nursing during early times was simply the care of the sick by family members, or by slaves in the South. Some religious orders assumed that burden as their calling, specifically the Sisters of Mercy, who had charge of Illinois' first hospital in 1849. (6) By and large, however, before the turn of the century "nurses," both Black and White, were untrained. Their care consisted of comfort measures, poultices and wraps of heat and cold plus the compounding of herbs and potions to help their patients.

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Looking Back: Black Nurses Struggle for Admission to Professional Schools


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