Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Trudy Rice's Story: Nursing and Race in Oregon History

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Trudy Rice's Story: Nursing and Race in Oregon History

Article excerpt

IN 1968, GERTRUDE "Trudy" Rice became one of Oregon's first African American registered nurses (RN). She recently narrated her life story, particularly focusing on her education and work in this state. Rice's story specifically reflects the history of black women nurses in Oregon; the region itself and the state's long history of racial exclusion and discrimination played integral roles in shaping her experience. Her story is also reflective of a broader national narrative, one that engages the history and experiences of professional African American women more generally. As such, Rice's oral narrative is not only a significant contribution to local Oregon history but also contributes to important historical themes regarding race, gender, and power inequalities in the paid labor force.

The historical and scholarly significance of Trudy Rice's narration of her story cannot be overstated. As Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis has argued, the devaluation of oral narratives as inferior to other forms of autobiography is the result of cultural bias that has privileged white male voices. According to Etter-Lewis, oral narrative is an essential and valuable genre for highlighting African American women's experiences in particular. It is a genre that challenges the myth of "invisibility" that often obscures the experiences of women of color in scholarship on both women's history and African American history. (1)

Rice's oral narrative makes visible her work and her life experience as an African American woman by highlighting not only the ways in which she faced obvious and direct racism and discrimination, but also how she resolutely resisted that prejudice. In the narrative, for example, Rice describes watching white patients repeatedly walk past her desk, looking for the Team Leader Trudy Rice, whom they expected to be white. She recalls responding to their confusion: "Well Trudy hasn't gone anywhere. I'm right here. I'm right here." Literally working to make herself visible, Rice's professional career--like that of many African American women across the country--has been one in which she steadfastly connected nursing to social justice. In reflecting on both the challenges she faced as well as her perseverance, Rice attributes her success to an unwavering faith in God. (2) Finding support in friends, family, and faith, Rice portrays her story as one ultimately steeped in hope.

And yet, the very fact that Rice found it necessary to resist racism in her daily work life suggests one of the most important contributions of her story. The oral narrative reveals that Rice regularly engaged in the unofficial and unpaid work of educating others about racism. As Etter-Lewis argues, African American women professionals were often well versed in dealing with explicit racism, sexism, and exclusion by the time they entered white, male-dominated professional positions. (3) "In fact," writes Etter-Lewis, "the discrimination often intensified as a woman advanced to higher levels in her profession." (4) Certainly that reality is reflected in Rice's nursing career in Oregon, both in her work as a surveyor with the Health Department as well as in her role as nursing supervisor at Kaiser. Rice's consistent interventions in racism and discrimination in the workplace, her creation of the Harmony Group as a cooperative response to that racism, and her role as a mentor to younger African American nurses all suggest that her job responsibilities unofficially expanded to include the work of fighting racism.

Historian Elsa Barkley Brown has argued for the importance of highlighting the "relational nature of difference" in understanding women's pasts. (5) Recognizing social interconnectedness, Barkley Brown notes that simply acknowledging difference in the historical record is not enough; that contributory process--merely adding the experiences of women of color to a pre-existing historical narrative --only serves to reify difference and inequality. …

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