Mapping Care Project: The History of Black Nurses in Chicago

Schools of Nursing

Above: Institute of Public Health Nursing for Colored Graduate Nurses, Nashville, Tennessee, 1934, Chicago History Museum

“[T]hey were Black, female, and in a profession still striving for equality and respect within the medical community.”1

This quote captures the intersecting challenges that Black nursing students have faced since the emergence of the modern nursing profession in the United States.

Throughout the history of nursing education in the United States, Black people (usually women) have fought to get the education and skills they needed to serve their communities, who often lacked access to adequate healthcare.

Elite white women founded many of the first nursing schools after the Civil War, in a time when racism and segregation dominated American society. Black women were almost entirely excluded from the educational and professional opportunities that white women received through these nurse training programs. When male doctors and hospital administrators pushed to move nurse training from independent schools to hospital-based apprenticeship programs, these new programs similarly discriminated against prospective Black nurses. This left African American women with few options for joining the newly expanding nursing profession.

Beginning in the 1890’s, Black doctors, nurses, their communities, and their white allies created a network of hospital and nurse training schools. These institutions provided critical healthcare to the African American community throughout the segregated Jim Crow years, and they also trained thousands of Black women who became leaders in their fields and communities. Nursing students in these hospitals worked long hours for little pay, and the male doctors who ran the hospitals often enforced strict rules and discipline on their students. Because systemic racism prevented much of the Black community from building wealth, these hospitals struggled to maintain adequate resources.

Nurses and nursing students provided the labor that allowed Black hospitals to continue operating.

The Black women who went through these training programs became important activists for justice and equality for Black nurses and the Black community more broadly. They fought to integrate the Red Cross, the Army and Nurse Navy Corps, hospitals and nursing schools.

Black nursing students faced new challenges after legal integration in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Students who enrolled at predominantly white schools faced racism from white teachers and classmates. They fought to gain leadership positions in their fields and in nursing organizations.

In recent decades, Black nurses have continued to strive for academic excellence, earning advanced degrees in nursing and serving as leaders in various nursing fields.

Black nurses have long been trusted and respected leaders in the Black community. Black nurses and nursing students also have been and continue to be on the frontlines of battles for gender, race, and healthcare justice in Chicago and around the United States. 

In the following sections you can learn more about the history of nursing education for Black nurses, as well as about nursing schools in the Chicago area that served many or only Black nursing students.

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