Twenty-five alumni from the historic Mercy Douglass School of Nursing were honored for their contributions to health care.
Located in West Philadelphia, Mercy Douglas Hospital was one of more than 100 historically Black health care institutions which existed during the era of segregation. Many of the Mercy Douglass School of Nursing alumni were instrumental to civil rights efforts in desegregating health care.
Officials from the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing and the University School of Nursing hosted an afternoon tea on April 23 to honor some the Mercy Douglas alumni for their service and contributions in shaping the nation’s health. After graduating from the Mercy Douglass School of Nursing, many of the alumni in attendance left their mark on health care institutions, education and the armed forces.
“They have a truly vibrant alumni association. We just thought that it was timely to honor them and recognize them,”said Julie A. Fairman, director of the Barbara Bates Center.
“These ladies are amazing leaders in the Philadelphia and across the country. They were some of the first Black people to integrate Philadelphia health care. They have really great stories to tell about health care in this country.”
Elizabeth Williams, president of the Mercy Douglas School of Nursing Alumni Association said they were honored to receive the recognition.
“The people who have worked on this have really been dedicated and committed to bringing it all together. Today is really such as nice gesture on their part to do a tea in our honor,” said Williams, who graduated from the nursing school in 1954.
Williams, 80, of Harrisburg, reflected on the important role of Mercy Douglas had in training Black doctors and nurses.
“I think that the training that we got there was so invaluable because they were on such a tight budget, so we improvised a lot of things in order to learn what we had to do,” she said.
While Mercy Douglas School of Nursing was regarded as a prestigious institution, many of the nurses still faced barriers due to discrimination.
Williams encountered difficulties when she returned home to Harrisburg to seek employment.
It was during the 1950s and many of the hospitals were not hiring Black nurses. When Williams first applied for a position at the Harrisburg State Hospital, the nursing director didn’t want to talk to her because she was Black. She persisted and found a doctor who ultimately helped her obtain employment at the hospital.
“It’s one of things where it was the old cliché — it’s not what you know but who you know that got me in the door. What I found is with any job that was hesitant in hiring me, it’s not the staff that you worked with, it was the administration that just had these discriminatory policies,” Williams said.
She would go on to enjoy a lengthy career in nursing.
The afternoon tea drew nurses from the Philadelphia region and from as far away as California.
When Ethelyn Beach Dawson graduated from Mercy Douglass in 1960, she was among the last group of nurses to graduate from the school. After obtaining her diploma, Dawson went on to work at Albert Einstein Northern Division.
“That was before we were able to get decent jobs. You were only a token,” she recalled.
Dawson would go on to have a lengthy career that spanned from education to the armed forces. After the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968, opportunities began to open up and Dawson was asked to become a practical nursing teacher for the School District of Philadelphia. She obtained her bachelor’s, master’s and her doctorate from Temple University. At the age of 42 she took her nursing skills to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, where she worked for 17 years and retired as a colonel in 1998. She returned to the school district where she became a health trade coordinator.
During the event, Loretta Sweet Jemmott, van Ameringen professor in psychiatric mental health nursing, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, told the honorees how they inspired her. She was a candy striper at Mercy Douglass Hospital in 1969-1970 where she first encountered Black nurses.
“What happened to me at Mercy Douglass is priceless because I saw Black nurses doing their thing. It showed me that I could be a nurse. At 14, I knew that I wanted to be a nurse but I had never seen any models but I saw you guys. By seeing you, you showed me that I could do it too,” Jemmott told the nurses.
The honorees and their guests had the opportunity to tour the Barbara Bates Center which houses a collection of documents, photos and memorabilia from the Mercy Douglass School of Nursing. The center is working to secure funding to develop a website for the Mercy Douglass archives. The center holds one of the largest collections of documents, artifacts and other historical documents focusing on nursing and health care history.
“The Mercy Douglas collection is one of our most valuable collections and we have always wanted to do more in terms of getting the history of African American professional nurses out there before the public because we believe that it is a history that has not been told. We believe that not too many people, particularly young people, realize that we had a segregated health care system,” said Jean C. Whelan, adjunct associate professor of nursing and assistant director of the Barbara Bates Center.
“Many of the women who are assembled here today would have been the first African American nurse to work in a hospital and that was not an easy thing to be. It would be comparable to Jackie Robinson getting on the Brooklyn Dodgers.”