Mercy Hospital School of Nursing class of 1936 (Courtesy photo)
Mercy Hospital School of Nursing class of 1936 (Courtesy photo)

In addition to the month of May being designated National Nurses Month, the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), also designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife to advance nurses’ vital position in transforming health care around the world. Amid the crises generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s commemoration of National Nurses Month, has highlighted the abundant need for, importance of, and resilience embodied by nurses.

This is not a spotlight, however, unfamiliar to African American nurses — both lay and professional — who historically served on the front lines of the U.S. public health industry since its inception.

According to historian Susan Smith’s “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890-1950,” throughout the early twentieth century the Black nurse was a key figure in spreading the gospel of good health and hygiene to African Americans.

“As the field of public health nursing expanded in the twentieth century, and public health workers placed more emphasis on individual hygiene, nurses came to symbolize the ideal teachers. Public health nurses were especially important in rural areas where access to doctors was severely limited. Leaders of the Black health movement agreed that ‘one of the greatest needs as related to public health work among Negroes is an adequate supply of well-trained public health nurses.’ It was believed that the public health nurse was one of the most, if not the most effective instructor in the health education for Black people.”

Their importance has not waned.

Like Mary Frances Hill Coley, a revered midwife in rural, segregated Albany, Georgia, many of today’s young, Black nurses enter the field with a desire to help and an abundance of compassion. African Americans interested in entering the medical profession as midwives — or today’s doulas — have found that even with the necessary coursework and credentials, it is the mentorship of elders in the field that steers their development.

“My grandmother, Mary Alice Riverton, was a ‘catcher’ who did all the duties of an obstetrician but could not be licensed by the state of South Carolina because she only had a third-grade education. She was termed a catcher because she was not allowed to legally do anything but catch a baby as it delivered, and comfort the mother,” Philadelphia-based doula Shauna Waylon told The Informer. “Fortunately, she had been trained and understood things like how stress, high blood pressure, venereal infections and lack of rest impacted the birth process. In 45 years, she never lost a mother or child because her care was holistic. I want to be able to provide that same type of love and care.”

Waylon said that many nurses today fuse the cultural sensitivities of their grandparents with new technologies to build trust with patients and incorporate their mental, emotional, and spiritual needs.

“When you consider the amount of anxiety under which we live right now — we’re wearing masks and gloves to go outside, we’re stressed about economic security, and many are fearful to a point that they are not sleeping or eating properly. How do we factor those painful realities into health assessments? The nurses’ skill is making the patient feel comfortable enough to reveal their ailments. I cannot cure what you will not divulge. And so, nurses remain vitally important to overall good health,” Waylon said.

As the Washington Informer commemorates National Nurses Month, we invite you to utilize this quick guide for information on the history of nursing, career paths, and tips for nurses who need a bit of relaxation. Let us cheer on and support the nurses in our community!

Read, Learn, Enjoy!

Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian and journalist who serves as the Informer's Special Editions Editor. Dr. Sherman is the author of In Search of Purity: Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes...

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