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Enduring echoes: discovering southern nurses in the fiction of southern women writers 1892-1945: Part II.

Part I of this series was published in Georgia Nursing, Vol. 75, No. 1 (February, March, April 2015). In that column I discussed the book Iola Leroy by Frances E. W. Harper, a black author. Written in 1892 Harper placed her black nurse heroine within a civil war hospital to show that black women were also able to care with compassion for the wounded troops as lay nurses. After the war Harper has Iola Leroy move out of nursing, seeking higher education in the North, and at the end of the novel having Iola working in social activism in her North Carolina church community. This change in roles also paralleled the lives of aristocratic white women after the civil war when they also moved out of nursing in hospitals back into their private spheres. Harper who had fought for black women's rights envisioned an expanded role for her heroine that included a right for women to work, to gain an education, and to participate in intellectual discussions. Therefore, this early work of fiction by a black woman author and social activist clearly aimed at a white audience achieved its goal; to show that black women had the desire and ability to move beyond the boundaries that had hampered them in southern society.

Fifty three years after Harper's Iola Leroy, another change in social convention for black women would appear in Quality (1945) by Cid Rickets Sumner, a white woman novelist. Her heroine was a black trained nurse personified as the perfect woman to bring about social change in the South.

Historical records during the years between these two novels shows many changes in nursing. In the decades after 1920 nursing in the South faced many dilemmas including periods of shortages and oversupply, limited resources to solve problems of public health (Parsons, 1985), concerns with standardized quality education (Schissel, 1979), and the great economic crisis of the Depression. As Tindall (1967, 666) noted, most southern authors yearned for an anchor to the past to stem the rootlessness of a changing world, and nowhere were the certainties of the past more disrupted than in the relationships between the races (565). Segregation persisted, and lynching all too often erupted to mar the social landscape of the South. While the Depression halted the 1910-1930 out-migration of blacks from the Southeast, the result was a deepening black poverty as fewer and fewer jobs were available to those at the lowest economic rung (148, 570).

World War II brought increased opportunities to both black and white nurses. Through the Cadet Nurse Corps federal funds were allocated for nursing education and black nurses fought for and received increased quotas in the Armed forces. Media depictions of nurses serving in the war no doubt caught the attention of writers, as professional nurses now were accorded major roles in fiction by southern writers where previously they had been minor characters at best. To understand the change over time for southern black women in nursing, Sumner's main character in Quality, Pinkey, would be a prime example.

Even though Sumner also chose a mulatto as the ideal for her nurse protagonist there were major differences between her novel, Quality, and Harper's Iola Leroy, fifty-three years earlier. In Quality, for example, nursing is represented as an acceptable profession for black women; one that required education and not just being "born" to nursing, and one that could bring needed change to health care for blacks in rural Mississippi. Unlike Harper's Iola Leroy, Quality was a book read by whites and also by a wide audience of newly-literate blacks. Current Biography 1954 for instance, lists Quality as a Negro Book Club choice for that year (Candee, 1954, 591,592), indicating its popularity to blacks of that period.

In Quality, Sumner dramatizes the need for better health care for blacks in the South, and casts a black nurse and physician as reformers and organizers of separate but equal facilities for their race. Pinky, the heroine, is born of mixed parentages. Sent at a young age to the North, she passes for white, and is educated from elementary school through nursing school. Small increments of money that her grandmother sends to her, earned from washing white people's clothes, remind her of her Granny's hope that someday she will return and work for her own people in Mississippi.

Pinkey's decision-making follows a convoluted path in her search for her regional place (North or South), and self-identity (black or white). Selfish motives are overcome by a sense of duty as she agonizes over her personal responsibility. Slowed by a host of mistakes, she finally works within the structure of her rural Mississippi town, and with help from both blacks and whites, to accomplish social change.

Sumner's life experiences suggest personal knowledge of both northern and southern health care, education, and racial issues. Born in 1890 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, her father was a college professor and her mother a music school teacher. She was tutored at home and later educated at Millsaps College, Columbia University, and Cornell Medical School. While at Cornell she met and married Dr. James Batcheller in 1915 bringing an end to her own medical school education. After four children and fifteen years of marriage she divorced in 1930. She wrote her first novel in 1938. Even though most of her thirteen novels were set in the South, she chose to remain in the North to pursue her love of writing and other interests (Harte & Riley 1969, 1118). Sumner died at the age of eighty in 1979 at her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts (Time, 1970).

Since Sumner received her higher education in the North, she may have had a bias toward education being best there. In Quality she has her heroine, Pinky, and Dr. Frank Canady, both black and from Mississippi, go north for schooling even though there were nursing and medical schools for blacks in the south at the time (Thoms, 1929). Furthermore, Sumner's upbringing by educated parents, and her own education, may have caused her to envision societal reform emanating from formally-educated professionals down to those with less formal education. And lastly, writing a book with a theme of increased rights for blacks may have been much more comfortable for her from outside rather than inside the South in 1946.

The unusual title of Sumner's novel led me to speculate on where "quality" was best assigned in this novel. Granny, a black washerwoman, arranges for Pinky to have a quality education. Miss Em, early employer of Granny, and receiver of Pinky's private-duty nursing care, comes to appreciate the quality of that care to the extent of secretly willing her home, possessions, and land so that a hospital and nursing school can be built for blacks in the region. Frank Canady is portrayed as a black doctor who never wavers (unlike Pinky who almost chooses to stay in the North where she has passed for white and is promised an easier life), from his desire to return to the South and help his race. Pinky, too, may be the bearer of the title for the qualities that allow her to become the prototype for all black women in her southern community who will become nurses.

In analyzing how nursing is portrayed in Quality, several themes emerge. Superimposed on the main theme of social change are evolving doctor/ nurse and master/servant relationships, North/ South differences, and black/white issues. Nurse/ doctor relationships include romance dilemmas complicated by racial issues. Gender prescriptions for a black nurse in the South, and class issues related to developing nursing schools and nursing practice in the South are all part of the story.

Pinkey's effectiveness as a professional nurse is based on her coming to terms with her racial identity and with the acceptance of those with whom she is to work. She comes to learn to value her illiterate Granny, who has both access to all the important white people of the town as their washerwoman, and possesses a folk wisdom valued by many. Yet as a nurse Pinkey has a unique relationship to the men in the story. In her desire to provide health care for her race and because of her professional identity with Dr. Joe and Dr. Frank, she can be quite straightforward in her approach to the townspeople. Other women in the story have to be more deceptive. Miss Em shrouds in secrecy her intent to will her home and belongings to Pinky, and accomplishes this in the privacy of her bedroom. Granny makes her points unobtrusively on the back porches of prominent citizens as she delivers their clean clothes. The men in the community are untroubled with these traditional womanly and servant ways and initially are threatened by the unaccustomed straightforward approach of Pinky. She is shown in public places usually reserved for men such as the crowded courtroom, and in the private offices of the white mayor and doctor. She wins acceptance because her education enables her to speak well as in a courtroom scene, and gain Dr. Joe's seal of approval for the care provided Miss Em. In addition, by marrying within her own race she not only solidifies the team that will build and run the hospital and school of nursing for blacks, but also remains within societal boundaries.

Prescribed behavior for blacks within the health care system in the South in 1946 is portrayed. Pinky Johnson, for instance, cannot work in the white hospital. Rural southern blacks are not allowed as patients in private white hospitals and are reluctant to use the county charity hospital. But more acceptably, Pinky is allowed to nurse a white patient, Miss Em, inside her home, a traditional southern practice. The black radical, Jake, reveals his own traditional view in discussing his aged and ill Aunt Minnie. "It would have hurt my pride to see her took off to the charity," and Granny dreads hospitals because "seem like everybody go there die" (93). Even though past and present experiences with segregation have built reluctance in the black community to this existing health care facility, it is assumed that blacks will embrace upgraded medical services when provided in a separate but equal manner. Furthermore, it is implied that Pinky Johnson and Dr. Frank Canady are bringing something to the community that the black people not only need but want. Both Pinky Johnson and Frank Canady soon come to understand that a northern model with well-developed hospitals and training schools for nurses can best be adapted to the rural South by first learning what the local black community will utilize, and the white supremacists will allow. In her role as a "white" nurse in the North, Pinky was allowed a good deal of autonomy, whereas, in the South, her autonomy is limited until she is measured by the community's yardstick for a woman, and for her as a black nurse. Access to power is largely through the white male power structure in the town, and she must conform to what they see as proper behavior. They accept her capabilities as a reformer but she must use moderate methods and move slowly in accomplishing only the progress they approve.

Sumner strongly suggested that the nursing profession offered opportunity to all regardless of race, and in fact, was a vehicle for changing discriminatory patterns in the small towns of the South during the late 1940s. By comparison, Harper could not conceive such significance for nursing in 1892. More surprisingly however, neither could white southern women writing in the period between Harper and Sumner. White authors Mary Johnston, Ellen Glasgow and Frances Newman will be discussed in future columns. Examples from their fictions will implicitly portray a phenomena that answers the question, Why the silences about southern white nurses?


Candee, Marjorie D., Ed. Current Biography 1954. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1954: 591, 592.

Parsons, Margaret. White Plague and Double-Barred Cross in Atlanta 1895-1945. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Emory University, 1985.

Schissel, Carla M. The State Nurses' Association in a Georgia Context, 1907-1946. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Emory University, 1979.

Thoms, Adah B. Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985 (f. p. in 1929 by Kay Printing House, New York)

Time, "Milestones," Cid Ricketts Sumner, October 26, 1970.

Tindall, George, B. The Emergence of the New South 1911-1945. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
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Title Annotation:History
Author:Cannon, Rose B.
Publication:Georgia Nursing
Date:Feb 1, 2016
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