A Retrospective on Civil Rights: Pride and Progress

By Fondiller, Shirley H. | Nursing and Health Care Perspectives, March 2000 | Go to article overview

A Retrospective on Civil Rights: Pride and Progress


Fondiller, Shirley H., Nursing and Health Care Perspectives


A Retrospective on Civil Rights: Pride and Progress THE INVOLVEMENT OF BLACK NURSES in the activities and programs of the NLN dates back several decades to its predecessor organization, the National League of Nursing Education (NLNE), formerly the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses. With a new name and structure in 1912, the NLNE admitted to membership black nurses who were teachers in nursing schools, directors in public health work, members of state boards of nurse examiners, and others with educational interests (1).

Several black members presented scientific papers and participated in various events at NLNE national conventions. For example, in 1934, G. Estelle Massey, educational director of the School of Nursing at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington. D.C., discussed "The Negro Nurse Student" at the 40th annual meeting and spoke of parallels between the history of blacks in America and the nursing profession itself. "The Negro nurse, then, is caught in the midst of two evolving processes and the social order. Racially, she is a member of an emerging group which has not been fully recognized on a meritorious basis by other groups; professionally, she is part of an emerging group not fully recognized by other groups on the basis of its worth to society" (2).

Although the League welcomed many black nurses, a serious obstacle to member eligibility existed in the South, where blacks were denied membership in state nurses' associations. At that time, belonging to the NLNE was contingent on membership in these associations, state constituents of the American Nurses' Association (ANA). In 1942, a significant change in NLNE bylaws created the category of individual membership, thus setting a precedent to break the racial barrier (1). Black nurses were represented on committees in such areas as curriculum, educational policies for wartime, postwar planning, vocational guidance, and the National Committee on Nursing School Libraries.

From its beginnings in 1952, the new NLN included blacks on its Board of Directors, as well as councils, committees, and professional staff. Serving on the first Board was Willie Mae Johnson Jones, who worked for the Community Nursing Services of Montclair, New Jersey. In January 1954, Estelle Massey Osborne became the first black nurse on NLN's staff. Described as outstanding by Executive Director Anna Fillmore, Osborne held the post of associate general director for administration until her retirement in 1966. She assisted in coordinating state and local league activities along with other responsibilities. Three years after her appointment, four more black nurses joined the executive staff (1).

During the late 1950s and 1960s, the federal government took substantial action in dealing with injustices in civil and political rights. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. One year before, NLN reaffirmed a policy on nondiscriminatory practices in nursing that had been formulated by the NLNE. On a motion introduced by Marie Farrell, chairman of the Division of Nursing Education's steering committee, the Board of Directors voted that "all activities of the NLN shall include all groups regardless of race, color, religion, and sex, and that NLN bring its stand to the attention of state groups" (3).

In 1964, the executive committee of the Board reviewed the organization's earlier stance on civil rights. It concluded that the principles inherent in the statement had been practiced and that no revision or modification was indicated. In the committee's view, the statement fully expressed NLN's belief in the "sacredness of human life and health as well as the equality of human rights" (4).

Commenting on NLN's involvement in racial concerns during the organization's nascent period, Mabel Keaton Staupers, a prominent black leader, offered the following observation: "The National League for Nursing broadened the organizational foundation for attainment of integration and heightened inspiration toward this end when it met in convention.

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