The Color of Caring

In 1947, when Thelma Anderson was living in Tennessee, she applied through the mail for a job as a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, hoping to work in the operating room. When she arrived at Jackson, owned then by the City of Miami, to begin her job, management discovered she was black and informed her she could not work where she wanted. "I went to work on the colored wards at that time, and they said that if I got some experience, maybe the time would come when I could work in the operating room, but it really had nothing to do with experience," recalls Anderson, who married civic leader Rev. Theodore Gibson in 1967 and has long been known as a community activist herself.

Among the other lessons she learned while working at Jackson: Black nurses were never addressed as Miss or Mrs. Anderson; they were called Nurse Anderson. Black patients were also supposed to be addressed by their first names. "In my training we were taught that you respect every human being, especially people who were sick," notes Anderson-Gibson. "There was no respect for people who were adults." To add to the inequities, Anderson-Gibson says, black nurses were forbidden to be head nurses. They could be charge nurses only during certain shifts because white nursing students at Jackson were not allowed to be taught by black nurses.

It wasn't until the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that black nurses had some hope of regaining their dignity at Miami hospitals. And it wasn't until about ten years later that Jackson Memorial integrated its units. Lessie Pryor, a professor of nursing at MDCC's Medical Center Campus, was there and recalls the day: "It was in the summer of 1963 or 1964. I saw the hospital administrator pushing a white patient in his wheelchair over to what they called 'the colored side,' or to the east-wing side, which is where the Ryder Trauma Center is now. He was actually pushing a white patient to that side as black patients were being transferred over to the white unit based on their ability to pay."

These are just a few of the interesting facts that Christine Ardalan, a registered nurse herself and a doctoral candidate at FIU, uncovered when she began conducting research about nurses and midwives who worked in Miami from 1896 to 1960. Ardalan's quest led to the oral history presentation That Was the Way It Was: The Story of Black Nurses and Midwives in Miami, 1896-1960, taking place Saturday at MDCC's Medical Center Campus. The morning will feature speeches by Lessie Pryor; Dr. M. Elizabeth Carnegie, former dean of the Florida A&M School of Nursing; Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives; and Ardalan herself.

Along with Anderson-Gibson and Pryor, Ardalan interviewed nurses Helen Bentley, Emma Walker, Carrie Emmanuel, Ida Engram, Birdie Anderson, Dorothy Hall-Welch, Lydia Walker, Okel Welsh, Idella Hogan, Wilhelmina Welsch, Grace Wyche, and the late Grace Higgs. She also spoke to descendants of well-known midwives Charlotte Ingraham, Ellen Sturrup, and Albertha Turner, grandmother of State Sen. William Turner. Most of the people to whom Ardalan spoke are expected to contribute their experiences to the presentation. The public is invited to share any stories they may have about local nurses and midwives as well.

"It's kind of hard to believe what you hear from just one person, but when five or six people can tell you the same things that happened, I guess you believe it even more," says Anderson-Gibson. "I'm hoping that young nurses especially and people who are still in the field will understand that there are people who struggled in the past so they could get some of what they have now and in the future. We helped make change take place."

-- Nina Korman

That Was the Way It Was: The Story of Black Nurses and Midwives in Miami, 1896-1960, will be held Saturday, August 15, at 10:00 a.m. at MDCC Medical Center Campus, 950 NW 20th St. Admission is free. Call 305-636-2390 to reserve a space.


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