NEW YORK NURSE: January/February 2009
As we celebrate Black History Month, we remember the titans, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Harriet Tubman. But “ordinary” people – including nurses – won small victories that made it possible for equal opportunity to become a reality. Here are some of their stories.
Iris Gilmore-Brice was born in 1910 and received her nursing education at Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. In 1939 she became one of the first black nurses to work at Kings County Hospital. She was an active NYSNA member until her death in 2000.
“Mabel Staupers was instrumental in getting me and six of my graduate colleagues assigned to white hospitals for the first time. Two went to Bellevue Psychiatric, two went to Cumberland, one went to Coney Island Hospital, and two of us went to Kings County.”
When Gilmore-Brice entered the lunchroom for the first time, nurses got up and walked out.
“They left their food and everything. I thought, ‘I don’t care. I’m hungry and I know my head nurse is going to want me back in half an hour.’ So I finished my meal and I went back to work.”
At the start of World War II, the military formed the Nurse Cadet Corps to provide nursing care for armed forces. One of the training centers was at Harlem Hospital and Gilmore-Brice was appointed science instructor. She took an anatomy class at NYU with a group of white medical students.
“Each two people had a cadaver. And one of the assignments that we had was to trace the 12th cranial nerve. That poor doctor. He couldn’t find the nerve! He would pick a vein. And I said, ‘that can’t be a nerve because it’s hollow.’ ‘Oh, oh that’s right.’ And he’d pick an artery. ‘That’s an artery! Can’t you tell how big and fat it is?’ I’m so glad I never went to medical school if I had to deal with these dumb people; it would be too much for me! I was the only black person and the only female. In medical class they began to call me doctor. I had to correct them.”
In 1951 Gilmore-Brice went to work at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx. She was hired as a staff nurse, but within a week she was offered a job in nursing education.
“I was the first black nurse to be employed in education in that hospital. So, I was a pioneer all over the place, all over the place.”
Etta M. Miller was born in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1914. She attended the Dixie Hospital School of Nursing at Hampton Institute in Virginia. After she graduated in 1938, she was considering a job as a private duty nurse to a white woman who was an Institute trustee.
“After I had talked to someone who gave me an idea about price, I quoted $90 a month and that I would have some weekends off. Well, she wrote back and said that she ‘could not accept that price,’ that she thought she could get a black nurse cheaper than she would have to pay a white nurse – and that a black nurse would get about what a practical nurse would get. So I did not take the job… I didn’t take that job.”
In 1941, Miller came to New York to take a midwifery course at the Maternity Center Association. She returned to Alabama to work as a community nurse midwife in the rural areas of the state.
“On one occasion, I went to a home that was far out in the rural section, in the really ‘country’ country, really muddy and all that. I couldn’t drive up to the house. I had to drive a certain distance and then walk . . . and the man brought his mule for me to ride on to get to the house. . . And when the baby came, I said [to the husband], ‘Hold the baby while I finish taking care of the mother.’ And so he’s sitting by the fireplace with this baby, and I see his hand’s shaking like this. And I said, ‘Man, don’t you drop that baby.’ I’m terrible. And he said, ‘I’ve never held anything this small in my life.’ I thought he would never get over that.”
Miller moved to New York in 1947 to work at the Bronx VA Hospital, where she retired in 1979. She was assigned to a ward with all white patients.
“I went to check temperatures one morning and a patient said he didn’t want a black nurse taking his temperature. So I didn’t say anything. I just walked away from him. When I finished taking temperatures . . . I started making beds. The other patients saw what had happened and they said, ‘Oh nurse, come over. You can make my bed. I’m ready. You can make my bed,’ while this evil thing over in the corner didn’t want anybody to make his bed.”
Jane Elizabeth Godden was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 1913 and came to the United States with a desire to be a nurse. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing education from St. John’s University in New York while working at Roosevelt Hospital. She spent the rest of her career working in the VA system.
“I was about the second or third black nurse that was hired, so even the patients sometimes were a little annoyed. I remember once I was taking a patient’s pulse. I won’t use the word he told me, but he said, ‘I don’t want your black hands on me.’ So I said, ‘Really. So I won’t put them on you. It’s all right.’ ”
Godden also encountered discrimination from other staff:
“I went to the dining room and there was one table vacant and there was a nurse sitting there. As I put my tray there, she moved. So I said, ‘It’s okay’ (to myself, I said, ‘It’s all right as long as you don’t ask me to move’). One girl noticed and she came over, brought her tray over to the table, and sat with me. She didn’t say anything to me about the situation and I didn’t say anything to her. But I’m quite sure . . . she wanted to make me feel better. So, these are things that went on that people probably would never believe.”
Godden retired in 1977 when she began to feel she couldn’t spend enough time with her patients. As a 58-year member of NYSNA, her advice for nurses is timeless:
“Respect yourself and give the patients respect. And you won’t have any trouble. You know, you have to give a little of yourself if you want someone else to give back, so you make the patient know that you’re interested in him as a person… When you greet the patient, you let him feel that you want to be there. And you’re there because you want to take care of him.”
Excerpted from interviews that are part of the New York State Nurses Association Nurses Oral History Project at the Foundation of New York State Nurses in Guilderland, N.Y. All three interviews were conducted during the 1999 NYSNA Convention by Richard Sloma, MLS.
Special thanks to Gertrude B. Hutchinson, MA, RN, archivist for the Bellevue Alumnae Center for Nursing History at the Foundation, who prepared the transcripts.