Date of Award

2021

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Nursing

First Advisor

Julie Fairman

Abstract

The mid-twentieth century marked a critical turning point in the history of race and American nursing. The political strategies traditionally employed by Black Americans for racial advancement and health improvement, particularly self-help and racial solidarity, gave way to new demands for equal citizenship rights. Black nurses were pioneers in the fight for racial equality in healthcare, battling interlocking racial, gender, and class oppression. Their quest for inclusion and equal opportunity intensified during World War II and culminated in their integration into the American Nurses Association in 1948, and the subsequent dissolution of their separate professional organization, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, three years later. Yet, little is known about the professional development of Black nurses during the classical civil rights era. Using oral history and archival methodologies, this study draws on the experiences of women who trained and worked at Mercy-Douglass Hospital School of Nursing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to address this gaping silence in the literature. Established in 1948, Mercy-Douglass provided vital medical services to the city’s expanding Black population, and was a key site for the training, employment, and leadership development of Black nurses and doctors who were barred from white institutions. The study’s findings revealed that Black nurses’ struggle for racial equality was more complicated than simply being integrated into the mainstream of nursing. It also entailed a battle to safeguard and integrate their own educational and medical institutions. In the end, Black-run nursing schools like Mercy-Douglass acted as a life vest during the turbulent period of desegregation, keeping the professional Black nursing class afloat until the system of legalized racial segregation and inequality was dismantled. This research has important implications for understanding the persistence of racism in nursing education, research, and practice in the United States, as well as strategies for combating it.

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