Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Beyond the Glass Wall: Black Canadian Nurses, 1940-1970

Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Beyond the Glass Wall: Black Canadian Nurses, 1940-1970

Article excerpt

Abstract. Until the mid-1940s, young Black women who wanted to train as nurses in Canada were prohibited from doing so. The first cohort of Black Canadian registered nurses integrated Canadian nursing schools beginning in the early 1950s. I argue that despite entering an occupation that defined itself around Victorian ideals of "true womanhood," an archetype that excluded Black women, these nurses were able to negotiate and secure a place in the profession. This research not only contributes to Canadian nursing, it also situates Canada, with respect to scholarly discussions about the Black Diaspora.

Back in the 1950s, they were not really accepting Black girls in nursing. I got into nursing because one of the principals was so kind and nice to me, and I had very good marks. When I got into nursing, I had no idea who my roommate would be, but there she was, another Black girl. I just felt that they didn't ask us who we wanted to room with. They just put us together because we were two Black girls. And I think that kind of set the tone for our whole three years. My roommate-her mother was White and her father was Black, so she had issues coming into nursing-but we got along fantastic. But she was always favored. She was fair, [had] long beautiful hair and you know my colour (laughs). It didn't matter to me. In the last year of nursing, they put another Black girl with us. The other Black girl definitely did not want to be there with us. She would dress in the closet . . . she didn't want to be with us. Other girls would have faded away, but I wasn't of that caliber. Nursing wasn't hard . . . there was some amount of segregation but nothing held me back.

Agnes (Scott) Ellesworth 1

In 1953, Agnes Scott and her roommate Dorothy Richards graduated from St. Joseph's School of Nursing at the Hotel Dieu in Windsor, Ontario. Prior to Scott and Campbell , only six Black nurses had graduated from the school. The fact that Dorothy (Richards) Scott was only the seventh Black nurse in the history of the hospital was not coincidental. Canadian nursing schools had a history of excluding Black women from obtaining nurse training. Indeed, compared to other Canadian hospitals, Hotel Dieu stood out with respect to the number of Black students it admitted during the post-Second World War era. Between 1948 and 1961, 13 Black students graduated from its nursing program.

This article explores the complex subjectivities of the first cohort of Black Canadian registered nurses embodied in Agnes Scott Ellesworth's quote at the beginning. Relying primarily on oral interviews, a magazine short story, and nursing and nonnursing texts, I explore how Black Canadian-born nurses negotiated and secured a place in an occupation that defined itself around Victorian ideals of "true womanhood," an archetype that excluded Black women. I argue that Black Canadian nurses nevertheless capitalized on the opportunities nursing offered to carve out a satisfactory professional and personal life. Their ability to negotiate and secure a place in nursing was a result of several related factors: their commitment to and investment in the professional ideals of the occupation; their childhood experiences growing up in Canada; their awareness of the exclusionary practice of nursing; and a tacit acceptance of their role as trailblazers in tandem with their ancestral legacy.

The research presented here is part of a larger project in which I conducted interviews with Black Canadian and Caribbean nurses who trained in Britain, various Caribbean islands, and Canada. Born between 1929 and 1950 in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba, all but two of the Black Canadian nurses I interviewed were trained in religious-based nursing schools. 2 The majority of the nurses found employment in Ontario hospitals. Three chose to work in the United States; the others all ultimately lived, worked, and retired in Canada. Keenly aware that they were among the first Black nurses, these young women entered an occupation that was organized on principles and ideals that reinforced White Canadian nurses' cultural hegemony. …

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