Alumnae of the St. Philip School of Nursing recalled some painful and fond memories of attending a segregated nursing school at a recent panel discussion held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the school’s closing.
The St. Philip School of Nursing was established as a separate nursing school for African-American women at the Medical College of Virginia during racial segregation. The 2012 Jackie Denise Jackson Memorial Cultural Diversity Lectureship drew more than 150 people to the School of Nursing’s Younger Auditorium to hear leaders in higher education and St. Philip alumnae share their experiences related to segregation and desegregation in higher education.
Pia Jordan, lecturer in the Communications Studies Department at Morgan State University and daughter of St. Philip alumna Louise Lomax Winters (Diploma ’42/St.P), provided the keynote address, recounting her mother’s journey from the segregated St. Philip to Alabama, where she made history in becoming one of approximately 29 Tuskegee Army Nurses. She noted that two other St. Philip alumnae, Mencie Trotter (Diploma ’40/St.P) and Della Bassette (Diploma ’41/St.P), were also among the nurses.
Jordan polled the audience to determine what led them to attend the panel discussion. Several acknowledged they had a personal connection to St. Philip – they were either born at St. Philip Hospital or had a relative who graduated from the nursing school.
Reflecting on their St. Philip experiences, alumnae panel participants agreed they had to work harder and longer than MCV nursing students, often with fewer tools and resources.
“St. Philip nurses had to learn how to improvise because we had to handle leftovers from MCV,” said Arlethia Rogers, RN (Diploma ’60/St.P, B.S. ’96/N).
Students also had to endure being treated differently and had to overcome other barriers brought on by racial segregation, while balancing rigorous classes, work and personal experiences. Yet, despite the daily struggles, St. Philip alumnae expressed pride in the quality nursing education they received, as it paved the foundation for successful careers. Their common struggles bonded them and led to lifelong friendships.
This bond led St. Philip alumnae to meet for reunions separately than the VCU School of Nursing’s reunion for many years after desegregation because some members did not feel they were a part of the school. During the panel event, it was apparent that a few still harbor those feelings.
“You didn’t want us to be a part of the school then, so why should we be a part of it now that you want us,” said an alumna in the audience, when questioned by panel moderator Michael Paul Williams, columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Other alumnae responded that they do feel a part of the school, due largely to the efforts of VCU School of Nursing Dean Nancy Langston, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, who reached out to St. Philip alumnae and convinced them to be a part of the school’s alumni reunion weekend.
During the panel discussion, Langston shared some of her personal experiences growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950’s during its landmark school segregation process.
She told the audience it’s important to reflect on and learn from the past, as well as continue exploring how to ensure successful matriculation of current and future African American nursing students. Langston also expressed a commitment to ensuring inclusiveness and diversity at the School of Nursing.
“We are enlightened and inspired by the stories of courage despite so many obstacles,” she said. “It is my hope that we continue this dialogue to address where we are now and what’s next.”
In addition to Langston and Rogers, other panelists included Ed Peeples, Jr., Ph.D., VCU professor emeritus and civil rights advocate; and St. Philip alumnae Lillian Epps-Johnson, R.N. (Diploma ’51/N), and Jessye Spencer, Ed.D, Ph.D. (Diploma ’54/N; B.S.’55/N; M.Ed.’79/E).
The panel discussion was a part of VCU’s Year of Freedom celebration, which consists of various events planned for 2012-2013 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and Emancipation. The VCU School of Nursing extended the celebration through desegregation, using the legacy of St. Philip to frame the discussion.
Below are scenes from the panel discussion.
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