By Laura Kebede
Anthony Ford, a Richmond native, knew of St. Philip School of Nursing. After all, he was a St. Philip Hospital baby born in 1959, three years before the segregation-era black school was closed. He also knew his aunt, who died in 1998, graduated from the Richmond school and was one of the first black head nurses there.
But it wasn’t until the panel discussion for the 50th anniversary of its closing that he found out she graduated in 1933 and got to see her yearbook picture, as well as the larger context of race relations in the Medical College of Virginia.
“I’m getting goosebumps,” Ford had said. “It was a big deal for her to have that much responsibility especially in the ’30s.”
The event, “Segregation and Desegregation in Higher Education: Confronting Our Past, Facing Our Future” brought together about 150 alumnae, family members of graduates, other St. Philip babies and community members to share memories of the school and frame a discussion on diversity in nursing and higher education.
One attendee came representing her 96-year-old mother who was a 1939 graduate. Another man came to honor the legacy of the women who he said trained him as an OBGYN better than his white professors who were “at home at 3 a.m. while we were delivering.” Even the last baby born in St. Philip Hospital (in 1961) attended to pay tribute
Arlethia Rogers, a 1960 graduate and panelist at the event, described the stark contrast of facilities between St. Philip and MCV.
“There was a powerful lesson in the struggles that we had,” she said. “Our attention to details was infallible. We had no choice…We learned to improvise because we got the leftovers from MCV and often we didn’t have the supplies to do what we needed to do.”
Of St. Philip School of Nursing’s 688 graduates from 1920 to 1962, three were of the 29 Tuskegee Airmen nurses during World War II. The event’s keynote speaker Pia Jordan is researching on a documentary to honor this group of women, which included her mother Louise Lomax Winters.
Today, black students entering VCU nursing has declined said Nancy Langston, dean of the VCU School of Nursing. Minority students make up 23 percent of the incoming freshmen at the VCU School of Nursing. Though she didn’t have exact numbers, Langston said the black population could be as low as 10 percent.
Several attendees expressed concern over these numbers and spoke on the value of diversity recruitment before segregation of a different era settles in.
But even after all these years, the class of 1954 from St. Philip School of Nursing and MCV came together in 2004 to create a $10,000 scholarship fund now valued at $30,000, a rare collaborative act amongst the once segregated groups.
Langston noted the scholarship and the panel discussion as a step in a longer dialogue of continued diversity in nursing education and the profession.
“The issues we have must be overcome,” she said. “And we overcome it when we come together.”