May 12th International Nurse’s Day: Celebrating Black Nurses Outside of October


International Nurse’s Day: celebrating black nurses outside of October

Each year, nursing organisations and governments around the globe celebrate International Nurse’s Day as a means for the public to thank nurses everywhere. It is held on May 12th, the day of Florence Nightingale’s birth in 1820, as celebrated by the International Council of Nurses (ICN) since 1965 [1].  It has been themed since 1988, this year’s being Nurses: A Force for Change – A vital resource for health. (The IND Kit 2014, containing educational materials and public information, can be downloaded from the website).

In the UK, usually on the Wednesday before May 12th, a Service of Thanksgiving is held in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the life and work of Florence Nightingale and to celebrate the works of qualified and unqualified nursing and midwifery staff. Beginning at the Abbey’s Nurse’s Chapel, a lamp, signifying the collective knowledge, is symbolically passed from one nurse, to another, to the Dean, who places it on the High Altar. This year, the service will be conducted on May 7th. The Royal College of Nurses has organised events around the country between 8th-23rd May [2]; the UK’s Cavell Nurse’s Trust will hold a 2-day event between 12th-14th May [3]; and in the USA, during Nurse’s Week (May 6th-12th), National Nurse’s Day and Student Nurse’s Day celebrations are also held.

Nurse’s Day is important to many in the British black community, because it is what brought many of our mothers and grandmothers to these shores. July 1948 saw not just the launch of the National Health Service, but also the British Nationality Act, as it received Royal Assent. It commenced in 1949, granting British citizenship to the people of the Commonwealth Nations and bestowing the right to work in the UK. The Nursing Press immediately carried adverts throughout the Commonwealth, inviting applications to work as auxiliaries and trainee nurses, endorsed by the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labour, the Colonial Office, the General Nursing Council and the Royal College of Nursing [4].
Even now, Equality and Diversity data from London Hospital Trusts suggest that black men and women still gravitate to the profession in great numbers, often making up greater than 50% of applications, but still left to languish in less senior grades [5] and, fairly or unfairly, still making up the majority of disciplinary procedures [6].

For all of the marketing of Nurse’s Day, there is no mention of Mrs Mary Jane Seacole. But, rest assured because, although her birth date is recorded only as 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, the anniversary of her death is May 14th (1881), Paddington, London (Score for the Cavell Nurse’s Trust!).
It is, therefore, time to sing out about the proud history that black nurses have created starting, most obviously, with Mrs Seacole (née Grant), who was voted the greatest black Briton in 2004. She travelled the world and self-funded her way to the frontline of the Crimean War (1853-56), then distinguished herself by opening the British Hotel nearby and treating injured soldiers. She is not the only significant black nurse the world has ever seen, but she is probably the one whom controversy has always followed.

The magnitude of her skill and war contribution and even her race (her father was Scottish) have been called into question. For example, the BBC’s Primary History – Famous People web page has reduced her effort to the ‘kindness’ of providing blankets, food and clean clothes [7], with no mention of her knowledge of traditional medicine, how she combined it with European medical ideas when she actually visited the battlefield to nurse the wounded. Last year, Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, wanted her removed from the school curriculum altogether, Mary Seacole as a mere myth having gained momentum [8]. Though, this has not been allowed to happen to date, she is not a compulsory subject.

The USA have enough black nurses whom they recognise and celebrate without controversy, and who are included in the Associates Degree in Nursing Guide – Influential Nurses web page, compiled by Yvonne MacArthur (last updated February 2013): Susie King Taylor, Mabel Keaton Staupers, Betty Smith Williams, Estelle Massey Osbourne, Lillian Holland Harvey, Hazel W. Johnson-Brown, Sojourner Truth (née Isabella Baumfree), Harriet Tubman, Adah Belle Samuel Thoms and Mary Eliza Mahoney. Since the 1800s, each distinguished themselves in various times of slavery, war, the dawn of modern nursing and the civil rights movement. Many of them embodied the idea of pioneerism, pushing through the arbitrary barriers that race bias constructs – not just by being the first registered black nurse (1879), the first of the black race to treat white soldiers (1860s) and gain nursing degrees (1901) in North America, but also by being the first black women to teach at universities (1945), to administrate as Deans (1948) and Directors (1906) of nursing schools and hospitals, to gain military promotion to brigadier general and head up the US Army Nursing Corps (1960s). They were campaigners for black women’s rights (1830s), for equivalent high-calibre nursing education, for acceptance into the Red Cross and the military, and for better career options as civilians and whilst serving. They were also founders of some of the fore-runner and enduring US nursing organisations – the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (1905) and the National Black Nurses Association (1971). They have each earned places of respect in the annals of the American Nurses Association, which bestow awards and scholarships in their honour [9]. Mrs Seacole is mentioned in the company of these women as a bonus!

(l-r) Mary Seacole pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War & Dr Nola Ishmael at preliminary training school, Whittington hospital, 1969

(l-r) Mary Seacole pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War & Dr Nola Ishmael at preliminary training school, Whittington hospital, 1969

Back in the UK, a great gap exists between Mrs Seacole and the next generation of British black nurses of note. Nola Ishmael (OBE, born in Barbados), a nurse, health visitor and mentor, became the first black person to become a Director of Nursing in London and she helped to shape policy in the Department of Health (1990s – early 2000s). She oversaw the conferring of the Mary Seacole Award for 10 years and was named the fifth most influential nurse of the past 60 years by the Nursing Times’ Diamond 20 voters in 2009. However, as of January 2014, only five of the 195 NHS Directors of Nursing in England are black (2.6%).

In addition to Ms Ishmael’s career achievement, other black nurses have fought important battles for fairness and equality when their careers were threatened or terminated. Nurse Milton Hanson, RIP 2005, was sacked from his job at the Caldecott Sexual Health Clinic in King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in South London. He was then permanently struck off the nursing register after the disciplinary proceedings which followed. His crime was exposing the misdiagnoses and degrading practices that black patients were subject to, which he (and others) had witnessed in the clinic in 2003 [10]. He said, “Black patients were routinely called derogatory names such as ‘crows’, ‘yardie criminals’, ‘monkeys’, and ‘breeders’, among many other offensive and hurtful names. Black women were routinely left exposed on examination chairs, unattended for long periods without covering.” It makes for horrific reading. Whilst the subsequent independent investigation concluded medical negligence had occurred, they rejected the racism claims, labelling it as ‘lack of cultural awareness’ instead. Nurse Rosie Purves, RIP 2010, took Southampton University Hospitals to a tribunal in 2004 when they accommodated a mother who did not want a black person caring for her child. She was removed from the child’s care team, the Trust moving her to work on other wards. But Nurse Purves was unprotected by the Trust, who did nothing to curb the mother’s harassment. She was left to endure prolonged racist abuse and confrontations. Nurse Purves won her claim [11].

(t-b) Milton Hanson. RosiePurves

(t-b) Milton Hanson. RosiePurves

A search of the internet will yield very few references to black nurses of distinction, their number dwarfed instead by the number disciplined. With regards to the character depiction of black nurses, then, television seemed the next medium to explore, putting, as it does, black nurses right into the homes of the nation. Disappointingly, in the USA, there have been only two TV series featuring a black woman as lead, portraying a nurse: Julie (1968 – 1975), starred Diahann Carroll as Nurse Julie Baker, a soldier’s widow working in a doctor’s office. It was the first portrayal of a non-stereotyped black woman on US TV. It wasn’t until 2009 that Jada Pinkett-Smith starred in Hawthorne as Christine Hawthorne, the Chief Nursing Officer in Richmond Trinity Hospital, Virginia. In between, M*A*S*H had only one recurring black nurse character, Ginger Ballis (Odessa Cleveland), in seasons 1 and 2. There was also the short-lived Nurses (1991-94), which featured Nurse Annie Roland (Ametia Walker) as one of five main characters. Chicago County General Hospital’s ER did well, having several regular black nursing characters, though none were leads: Haleh Adams (Yvette Freeman, all seasons); Malik McGrath (Deezer D AKA Dearon Thompson, all seasons); Conni Oligario (Conni Marie Brazleton, 1994-2003) and Dawn Archer (Angela Laketa Moore, series 13+). The cast was, in general, incredibly multi-racial. Scrubs did well too – the Sacred Heart’s Laverne Roberts (Aloma Wright), and Dominican Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes), Dr Turk’s eventual wife, Sacred Heart Hospital’s Head Nurse, straight-shooter and almost-lead character. Grey’s Anatomy, a series renowned for having cast the best auditionees for each character because racial characteristics were not defined when it was created, has only Nurse Tyler Christian (Moe Irvin, Series 1-7) as a recurring character at Seattle Grace Hospital.

Back in the UK, November 1991 saw Channel 4 air Casualties as part of their Cutting Edge documentary series. It featured the A&E department of Homerton Hospital, Hackney, London, then only 6 years old! The episode was widely publicised in the Nursing Times, Time Out and other publications, using the ‘face’ of the episode - Jamaican-born Sister Thelma D’Oyley. It is understood that her handling of the various patients – in particular, a deeply disturbed young man – was subsequently used by City University School of Nursing, London, to teach training nurses how to handle potentially violent patients.
City’s course homepage features a multi-cultural photograph, along with Manchester and Keele University
nursing and midwifery courses, and precious few others.

In UK fictional programming, Angels (1975-78) featured Nurses Sandra Ling (Angela Bruce), Beverley Slater (Judith Jacobs) and possibly one other at Heath Green Hospital, Birmingham. 1980s Eastenders featured Health Visitor Carmel Roberts (Ms Jacob). No Angels (2004-06) and Jo Brand’s Getting On (2011-12) featured no regular black nurse characters. The longer running dramas have increasingly become mutli-cultural. Holby City General’s Casualty, features regular black nurses, past and present, including: Clinical Nurse Manager Tess Bateman (Suzanne Packer); Ward Sister Colette Griffiths (Adjoa Andoh); Staff Nurses Clive King (George Harris), Cyril James (Eddie Nestor), Adele Beckford (Doňa Croll), Mark Grace (Paterson Joseph), Jamie Collier (Daniel Anthony), Lloyd Asike (Michael Obiora) and Scarlet Conway (Madeleine Mantok). It is a shame even well-known black actors mainly portrayed junior nurses!
Holby City has done better than Casualty in featuring regular black nurses in more senior roles, past and present: Nurse Practitioner Jasmine Hopkins (Angela Griffin); Charge Nurse Steve Waring (Peter de Jersey); Ward Sisters Kyla Tyson (Rakie Ayola) and Donna Jackson (Jaye Jacobs); Staff Nurses Jess Griffin (Verona Joseph), Elizabeth Tait (La Charné Jolly), Rachel Baptiste (Ayesha Antoine), Lauren Minster (Riann Steele) and Bonnie Wallis (Carlyss Peer). Here in the UK, a black nurse still hasn’t been cast in a lead role, there appears to be more than a touch of shadism when it comes to casting black women and the comedy domain could also do better, there being many young black comedy actors and actresses out there. So, whilst the USA may have a greater pioneering legacy to celebrate, the UK is ahead in casting multiple regular black nurse characters in junior and senior roles in popular, long-running, hospital dramas.

The state of TV portrayals may well be an accurate reflection of the reality of being a black nurse today. In 2008, the RCN commissioned and published the report, ‘The work-life experiences of black nurses in the UK: a report for the Royal College of Nursing’, by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Sonia McKay [12]. The document gives a remarkable insight into the impact on the personal and professional lives of black nurses working in the modern and modernised NHS. Thirty female nurses were interviewed on all aspects of their work, shedding much-needed light on their experiences in relationships with colleagues, patients and relatives, career progression, appraisal and supervision, networking and the work itself. Again, it is at times painful reading. It is also a genuine wonder as to what difference the report may or may not have made on the wards.

However, if you really look, some remarkable items can be uncovered on the Net. Brighton and Hove have a Black History page, on which they aimed to reveal the area’s hidden histories. They launched the Time and Place Project in 2009 – specifically, ten nurses who ‘came from the Caribbean (including Guyana), and trained at Brighton General Hospital in the 1950s and 1960s’ were interviewed with the intent of ‘honouring these nurses who contributed greatly to British society, not least through help(ing) the British Health Service at a time when there was an acute skills shortage.’ Once completed, the oral histories were to form part of the local libraries and schools educational resource. Unfortunately, I can find no trace of it [13].Vilma Beard Clarke, trained 1963-66 Dolly Bheemaswarroroop, trained 1957-60

So, rather than allowing your hearts to sink at yet another report of a black nurse being disciplined, the RCN (see above, 2012) and other watchdogs like Exaro News (2013) [14], are watching, acknowledging that the basis for many of these cases are due more to a ‘lack of cultural awareness’ than on competence.  This year, on International Nurse’s Day – May 12th, spare a thought, say a prayer, raise a glass to the women of the older generation without whom the NHS would surely have failed soon after it had begun; for the actors and actresses whose responsibility it is to represent those women and their successors in the homes of a nation with unacknowledged cultural issues; and for those, even at the BBC, who really do try to teach the nation’s children the social lesson of inclusion through remarkable programming like Horrible Histories.

Enjoy this Dancehall Style musical turn by actress, Dominique Moore, who herself batted a serious illness, as Mary Seacole in BBC’s Horrible Histories Series 4:

See also:

NB – follow numbers throughout text to relevant links and references






article for the british blacklist by  @DescantDeb

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