City Agrees To Add Black Nurses at KGH (1952)

Hire Five Nurses at Tenn. Hospital

Knoxville, Tenn. — (ANP) — Knoxville General hospital, municipally owned, is to have five additional Negro nurses, bringing the total number to nine.

Three years ago, by agreement reached between the hospital officials, city government on the one hand, and Negro physicians on the other, qualified Negro girls were to be sent to Meharry Medical college, all expenses paid, for training.

This was done as compromise to drop proceedings of a plan urging their training at the local hospital.  All nurses thus trained are under obligations to serve in the local hospital for not less than nine months.

The first of this group to graduate at Meharry are to report for service here, not later than October.  The opportunity to become a graduate nurse is still open to any qualified Knoxville Negro girls.

Source:  Chicago Defender, October 4, 1952, page 9


Personal recollections of 1954 KGH graduates Mary McCall McNamara, Jo Ella Tipton McCall, and Polly Robinson Whittle

All three nurses recall being pulled to work in the Colored Unit (as it was called) while students, which was highly unusual.  Mary remembers the black nurses staged a walk-out.  Jo Ella recalls there were not many trained black nurses in Knoxville to fill the positions, so there was a shortage.

Mary has a vivid memory of a black gentleman who was assigned to her.  She said the patient was extremely grateful because Mary bathed him.  The black nurses, she said, would not bathe men.  A black orderly was supposed to do that, but he did not.  Mary recalls students were not allowed to bathe men in the white hospital.

Polly remembers helping a white doctor deliver a baby in the Colored Unit.

Mary said this was “a really bad time” at KGH.  Students were appalled at the lack of care black patients received.  Because students were not allowed to go into the Colored Unit for any reason — it was detached from the main hospital — the students had no advance warning of poor care.

Mary and Polly recall some of the white students were uncomfortable, because they had not had personal contact with black people.  Mary and Polly both grew up with black neighbors, so they were not put off.


More historical background, from Phoebe Pollitt, Ph.D., R.N.

The “Meharry plan” was a response to the Supreme Court decision in Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada (305 U.S 337 (1938)).  Esther McCready sued the University of Maryland in 1949 for the right to enroll in nursing school (click here).  Based on these cases, the “Meharry plan” was deemed illegal.  States were required to provide equal education without sending black students elsewhere.

Some of the black students from Knoxville, who earned their B. S. in Nursing at Meharry, recalled resentment from white nurses who “only” had a diploma (from a program such as the hospitals ran).


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