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The St. Philip dormitory and education building was replaced by what is now VCU’s main hospital. Photos courtesy VCU Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library
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St. Philip's first class in public health nursing is shown attending an American Red Cross institute during the 1936-37 school year. Photos courtesy VCU Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library
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At right, Arlethia Rogers holds a picture of the St. Philip class of 1933. Photo by Jay Paul
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St. Philip alumnae at the Reunion Weekend in April 2012. Photo courtesy VCU School of Nursing
It is a gentle fall evening and a well-heeled, racially integrated audience is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the closing of one of the first African-American nursing schools in Virginia. St. Philip School of Nursing operated from 1920 to 1962, when the last of its 688 graduates received their diplomas.
Nearly 200 people attend this lively event at the VCU School of Nursing, which includes a reception and a panel discussion. With candor and flashes of humor, various alumnae recall the contributions of the St. Philip nurses and the challenges they endured during an era when separate facilities were often far from being equal, and when condescending attitudes, snubs and insults were the norm.
"There was a powerful lesson in these struggles that we had," says Arlethia Rogers, president of the Richmond chapter of the St. Philip Alumni Association. She says that she and her fellow nursing students "developed a keen sense of observation and our attention to details was invaluable. We had no choice." The 1960 St. Philip graduate earned a bachelor of science degree in 1996 from the VCU School of Nursing (formerly known as the Medical College of Virginia School of Nursing).
"We had confidence in our abilities and the courage to do what we had to do," Rogers says. "We learned to improvise because we got leftovers from MCV, and oftentimes we did not get the supplies we needed."
Black students, for example, had to go to Brooklyn in New York City to learn psychiatric nursing because they couldn't study it at MCV. Rogers also recalls that the late Charlotte Wynn Pollard, the first black nurse to graduate from the formerly all-white MCV nursing school, was not allowed to sleep in the dormitory with white students. A resolution passed by the General Assembly in 2012 recognized that fact, along with Pollard's "lasting legacy, characterized by trailblazing achievement, community service, and dedication to improving the lives of others." The resolution noted her work as a psychiatric nurse, a nursing instructor who helped write a curriculum for community colleges, a business owner who spoke about stress management and holistic health, and a church deaconess who was active in efforts to prevent child abuse.
Tonight, Rogers is one of three alumnae participating in a discussion titled "Segregation and Desegregation in Higher Education: Confronting Our Past, Facing Our Future." She retired from the Virginia Department of Health [VDH] in 2011, achieving several "firsts" during her career, including serving as the first black public health nurse in the Henrico County Health Department in 1972. Later, she became a nurse consultant at VDH and managed the statewide Genetics Program.
For fellow panelist Lillian Epps-Johnson, the positive experiences of attending the school outweigh the negatives. "Because of my St. Philip experience, I was a recipient of a congressional award [for exemplary service] to the public and community," she informs the crowd, to much applause.
Epps-Johnson earned her diploma in 1951 and received a bachelor's degree in nursing from Hampton University. She retired in 1986 after serving for more than three decades at Hampton's Langley Air Force Base Hospital, and was included in the book, The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide, 1984-1994, which recognizes contributions of black nurses.
Among those attending the event is Dr. Robert E. Petres, who practices obstetrics and gynecology. During the program, he becomes emotional when he tells how St. Philip's nurses assisted him during his residency at MCV. "It was really those African-American nurses who got me started and helped in their own way to educate me," he says. In an interview afterward, he recalls that black nurses were not allowed to draw blood or start an IV. But one night, while juggling dozens of patients, he told the nurses to do so. At 4:30 a.m., the end of his shift, he dreaded tackling the awaiting paperwork. To his surprise, he found that "all my orders were written and signed in my signature. The charts and discharge summaries were written. They had done that. No one said a word ... but it was quite apparent to me they knew a hell of a lot more than most people were willing to admit."
Corinne Dorsey, a retired nurse from New Kent County, stands up and shares a story about how the MCV and St. Philip nursing classes of 1954 came together in 2004 to raise $10,000 to endow a scholarship that now has a market value of $30,000. "The scholarship is named the unity scholarship to reflect the coming together of the two schools," says Dorsey, who is white. To date, six students have received scholarships. The Unity Scholarship Fund supports any student in good academic standing who has a financial need, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Nancy Langston, a panelist and dean of the VCU School of Nursing, grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and remembers well the 1957 effort to desegregate Little Rock Central High School, which required the intervention of President Dwight Eisenhower and federal troops. She says that her feelings regarding St. Philip were shaped by those Arkansas memories. Langston, who has worked to build connections and diversity as dean and when she was president of the National League for Nursing, helped to persuade St. Philip alums to finally embrace VCU, despite initial resistance.
Richmond resident Burlette Trent, a 1954 St. Philip graduate, says, "The dean has made it her business to make sure we were included in the things they were doing and that people realized we were there. A lot of people didn't realize we were part of MCV."
Trent, who retired as head nurse of cardiology at the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center and helped to launch the Unity Scholarship, says that St. Philip students didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the advantages enjoyed by their counterparts at MCV. "We took care of patients as best as we could."
When Langston learned that the schools were having separate reunions, she asked St. Philip graduates to consider being part of the MCV/VCU reunions. "The answer was no," she recalls. When she asked if scholarship money could be given to MCV for the centennial celebration in 1993, Langston says she was told, "You would not let us be there when we wanted to be; why would we be there now just because you want us?"
The nursing school needs to pay attention to the lessons of the past, she says. "How will we make certain that we don't have de facto re-segregation?"
Pia Jordan, a lecturer in the Department of Communications Studies at Morgan State University, raises a similar question during her keynote address tonight. Her mother, Louise Lomax Winters, is a St. Philip alumna. When MCV started accepting black students in the mid-1950s, and St. Philip's enrollment dwindled until it was closed, her mother "wondered how many African-American nurses are now coming through [VCU]," Jordan says.
During a public comment period, someone asks about the school's diversity snapshot. "We graduate fewer African-American students than we did when we had St. Philip," Langston responds.
Fifty years after the shuttering of the black nursing school, African-Americans make up about 10 percent of VCU's nursing students, a number that is consistent with black enrollment in nursing programs at colleges nationwide, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing [AACN]. About 5 percent of registered nurses are black, the latest nursing demographics show, says Adam Sachs, a spokesman for the American Nurses Association.
Attracting students from under-represented groups — specifically men and people from African-American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, and Alaskan backgrounds — is particularly important, given the Bureau of Labor Statistics' projected need for more than a million new and replacement registered nurses by 2016.
Changing the landscape will require some commitment, audience member John Dowl of Petersburg tells the panel. "White coaches don't have a problem going into black neighborhoods and finding good black athletes," says Dowl, who has a background in radio and television work. "The rest of us need to do the same thing. ... As a white person, you need to get out of your comfort zone [and] go out to where the people are."
Langston tells the audience that she hopes to partner with Virginia Union University and Virginia State University to attract more black nurses as part of a diversity plan. As the panel discussion wraps up, Langston encourages alumnae from both schools to unite "to create a future that will soften some of the edges of the past."
Statistics point to a brighter future ahead. Numbers provided after the September program show that the fall enrollment of African-American students in the registered nurse-to-bachelor's-degree program is 12 percent (total minority enrollment is 18.7 percent.) African-American enrollment in the master's-degree program is 18 percent and overall minority enrollment is 28.9 percent. The minority enrollment percentage is highest among new sophomores entering in the fall of 2012 — at 32 percent.
"It is my hope that this is but the beginning of the kinds of dialogues that your school of nursing will lead, whether it's about racism or segregation," says Langston, "that we deal with social issues together to create a more just world."