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Nursing Tales of the City: The African-American Experience

Sprat bookSprat bookIn the late 1800's, many states enacted statutes to separate the races. Hospitals and nursing schools in southern states and the District of Columbia became strictly segregated, and "Colored" nurses from these states were denied admission to the American Nurses Association, a policy that continued until 1948.

It was in this atmosphere that Anne Foy Baker, one of 11 children from a postal worker's family in North Carolina, first came to Seattle in 1944. Trained in an all-Negro hospital school in Virginia, she excelled as a nurse and decided to move west, where a friend worked as one of the first Black nurses at Harborview Hospital.

Although the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses had been established in 1908, Baker felt something local was needed. Negro nurses working at Harborview did not know one another, and many were new to Seattle. In 1949, she networked with others to organize a meeting. The 13 nurses who gathered in Baker's home one Saturday afternoon told similar stories of poverty, deprivation, and total racial segregation. Yet they had achieved what few women enjoyed in pre-1950 America: professional careers. The women left the meeting inspired by one another's triumphs, enriched by their mutual support, and informed about local educational and professional opportunities. Thus the Mary Mahoney Registered Nurses Club, named in honor of the first African-American registered nurse in America, was born. Over the years, this experience was repeated again and again as more new arrivals joined the meetings. Although the women – and men – now referred to themselves as African-Americans, the stories they told still resonated with personal struggles, self-determination, familial support and professional success. In addition to networking and support, the group committed itself to community outreach, to recruiting more African-Americans to nursing, and to a vigorous scholarship program. In 1972, a new faculty member in the UW School of Nursing, Lois Price-Spratlen, was invited to her first meeting. She recalls that she found herself "reeling" from the stories she heard, and could not believe they had never been recorded. Price-Spratlen, who served as president of the group two years after joining, vowed to do something about it.

That day finally came when two founding members became ill, and Price-Spratlen feared their stories would die with them. Working every weekend for two years, and with the support of the Provost's Office at the UW, Price-Spratlen conducted careful interviews with 26 longtime members of the group, now called the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization. Each story, illustrated with vintage photographs, became a chapter in African American Registered Nurses in Seattle, an oral history of courage, tenacity and triumph. An original painting by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, "We Are One," illustrates the cover.

"You can't hear these stories without being changed," Price-Spratlen says of her experience in writing the book, which was released this spring. Based on the feedback she has received so far, neither can her readers.