Revisiting the 1925 Johns Report on African-American Nurses

Article excerpt

In 1925 the Rockefeller Foundation surveyed conditions of training and employment for African-American nurses in the United States. The foundation was interested in supporting nurse training for African-American women: the survey, according to official Rockefeller records, would provide information on which to base future decisions.1 Ethel Johns, a Canadian nurse recently hired by the foundation for work in Europe, was assigned the project and given 4 months to complete her survey. Johns submitted her report, "A Study of the Present Status of the Negro Woman in Nursing," to the Rockefeller Foundation in December 1925.2 For the next 50 years, an aura of secrecy surrounded its contents.3 Leaders in nursing and the African-American community were certainly aware of the report's existence, but it was never published or circulated outside the Rockefeller offices.4 It was left to historian Darlene Clark Hine to provide the first historical analysis in 1982.5

Johns, said Hine, had done "her work too well."6 The report provided stark evidence of the plight of African-American nurses, and Rockefeller officials, overcome by the evidence facing them and the complex U.S. racial situation, chose inaction. An added reason for Rockefeller "inertia," according to Hine, was the prevailing attitudes of the white nursing establishment: African-American nurses were merely tolerated in the profession as second-class citizens. Hine amplified her arguments using detailed illustrations from the report that highlighted the conditions of training in segregated hospitals, the racist view of African-American intelligence and moral character, and the limited career opportunities for African-American graduate nurses. The low status of nursing and poor conditions of training were reasons, Hine explained, why educated African-American women frequently shunned the profession and opted for social work or teaching. Those wishing to "elevate themselves above the level of domestic servant" did not favor nursing with its origins in domestic service.7 In her analysis, Hine made few comments about Johns and did not discuss the influence of Johns's personal beliefs on the report.

Using Hine's article as a stepping stone, I reexamine the Johns Report focusing on the author's imprint as investigator and writer. Johns was a member of the elite white nursing leadership in North America: her image of the professional nurse and her commitment to reform of nursing education influenced her investigation and interpretation of survey data. She was a skilled writer who used language to capture and dramatize a situation, a fact that must be taken into consideration when reading the report. Given Johns's imprint, can we merely accept the report at face value? Though it is a significant document in the history of African-American nursing, my interpretation will highlight its relevance, as well, to the general history of nursing.

By 1925, when she carried out the survey, Johns strongly supported college education for nurses as a means of improving training and advancing the quest for professional recognition. Her frustration with the existing system of hospital training colored her assessment of the African-American nursing schools she visited. She deplored the general state of nursing education and the inability of the nursing leadership to legally impose standards. She could say about African-American nursing schools what she could not so bluntly say about white schools.8 As a leader in the profession, she held middle-class values, even though politically she was sympathetic to the cause of labor. Hine noted that Johns, while an "enlightened" person, was "prone" to "certain racist observations."9 Johns included information from "both sides" of the racial divide in the report. As a humanitarian, she deplored the strict segregation of the south where she was unable to invite an African-American colleague to dine with her. But despite her sympathies, she ultimately saw African-American nurses as inferior to white nurses and doubted their capacity for leadership. …

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