Some 20 years ago, longtime friends Louella Walker (Nurs ’58) and Mary Jones (Nurs ’61) were browsing a former teacher’s estate sale when they unearthed a brown bag filled with black-and-white photos. Staring back at them were their own faces, alongside those of fellow graduates of a UVA nursing program that many had forgotten.
Educated at UVA in the 1950s and 1960s, these nurses would eventually help desegregate the University of Virginia Hospital; some became Charlottesville community leaders. But because they were black, they did it all without getting what University leaders now say was owed them: recognition from their university and status as the UVA alumni they’ve always considered themselves to be.
A new project is bringing attention to UVA’s so-called hidden nurses—uncovering the stories of their service despite the cruelty of segregation and having honored them at a ceremony in April with admission into the Alumni Association and an apology for taking so long.
Filling a need
Nurses were in short supply after World War II. In the 1950s, however, only white students could attend UVA Hospital’s nursing program and graduate, after three years, with a diploma as registered nurses.
So, Roy Carpenter Beazley (Nurs ’30, ’41), then UVA Hospital’s nursing department director, created a program similar to others across Virginia to quickly train new nurses. In a partnership between UVA and Jackson P. Burley High School, a local school for African Americans, students trained to become licensed practical nurses, completing their education in just 18 months. LPNs typically work under the supervision of registered nurses.
For many black students at the time, it was one of the few options beyond life as a domestic worker. “Had I not gone into nursing, I would have been a nanny,” Walker says. “I felt like I wanted to do a little bit more.”
During the program, students wrapped up their senior year at Burley and then completed their nursing training at the hospital. There, white and black nursing students rarely mixed. McKim Hall, then a dormitory for nursing students, was off-limits to the black nurses in training. But the program provided a monthly living stipend and connected them with local families who rented out rooms.
Their classes also took place away from the white students and in the hospital’s basement. While both groups of nurses treated patients without regard to race, the LPN students were assigned the sickest patients, Walker says.
And doctors, she added, could ignore them. “You really weren’t recognized even though you were doing the work,” she says. “They would go to the white student or the white supervisor and ask a question. Sometimes we’d be standing right there.”
Once they completed the program, the black nurses received their LPN certificate and were farmed out to positions in departments across the hospital. Even as official nurses, however, they still weren’t accepted by some. Doctors, Jones says, “would always look for a white face.”
So did some patients. “We were taught how to handle those patients,” Walker says. “We wouldn’t be ugly to them. We would be kind and gentle to them. I won most of my patients over.”
About 150 students, including a handful of men, completed the Burley program, which ran until 1966. In 1967, UVA launched a bachelor’s program in nursing, following a nationwide trend to move nursing schools out of hospitals and into university programs. Mavis Claytor (Nurs ’70, ’85), the nursing school’s first black student, transferred into UVA from Roanoke College the
Today, UVA’s School of Nursing boasts a diverse student body, with 39 percent of its current undergraduate and graduate students coming from racial and ethnic minorities and groups underrepresented in nursing, including men.
The LPN graduates always thought of themselves as UVA alumni, says Barbra Mann Wall, director of UVA’s Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry. “The RN nurses got diplomas; the LPNs got certificates,” she says. “They both said, ‘University of Virginia Hospital.’ The diploma nurses have always been considered alumni, but the black nurses weren’t.”
Regardless, those nurses used the program as a steppingstone. Nursing was a respected, high-status job in the local black community. “These black LPNs went on to be activists and leaders in their community,” Wall says.
Outstanding graduates included Charles Barbour (Nurs ’60), Charlottesville’s first black mayor; Grace Tinsley (Nurs ’58), the first black woman to serve on the Charlottesville School Board; and Dr. Anita-Rae Smith-Pankey (Nurs ’58), who later graduated from Howard University medical school and became a psychiatrist.
For Walker, the program launched a long career at UVA Hospital. She was one of the first nurses to work there for 50 consecutive years.
Connecting the dots
Despite their success at UVA and elsewhere, UVA’s black nurses were largely forgotten by their alma mater. When Walker and Jones discovered the photos at the estate sale a couple of decades ago, they loaned them to nursing school staff. Walker says she’d sometimes look for the pictures on the nursing school walls but didn’t see them. “It stayed in the back of my mind: ‘What happened to them?’”
Turns out the photos were at the school, but forgotten again. It wasn’t until 2018 that staff found them and returned them to Walker. Soon, the staff connected her and Jones with Tori Tucker (Nurs ’12, ’22), a UVA graduate nursing student.
Tucker already knew a bit about the Burley nurses from searching in UVA and state archives during her own research on black nurses and nursing students in Virginia. Her efforts to learn more from the Burley nurses come as part of a project to ensure that the nursing school and its archives cover more than just the history of white nurses. The work is funded with a grant from the Jefferson Trust, an initiative of the Alumni Association.
“What those pictures did,” Tucker says, “was ignite a desire to find out more.”
As plans unfolded for the alumni recognition ceremony in April, Walker and Jones were instrumental in notifying graduates and their families. Tucker considers them her research collaborators. “Together, we are rebuilding the archives,” she says. “Together, we are challenging the narrative.”
At the ceremony, about 25 graduates returned, along with their family members and relatives of some of the more than 100 graduates who have died. Now part of UVA’s alumni ranks, the graduates will have access to, among other benefits, UVA’s career services, admission guidance and reunions, says Jenifer Andrasko (Darden ’10), president and CEO of the UVA Alumni Association.
For Walker, the day was another stop along what she calls a “divine journey.” The honor was long overdue, but welcomed. “It’s better to get it later than never,” she says.
A special case displayed the pictures that had been stored away for so long. Graduates heard a videotaped address from President James E. Ryan (Law ’92). And they walked across a stage at McLeod Hall Auditorium to receive certificates from then-dean Dorrie Fontaine as the crowd cheered and took photos.
“You studied, trained, and became nurses at a time when African Americans were excluded from our school,” Fontaine told them that afternoon. “This was terribly wrong, and on behalf of the school, I humbly ask you to forgive us for closing our doors to you. It could not have been easy for you during the terrible times of segregation, but you paved the way for so many others to follow in your footsteps.”