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Virginia Allen, LPN, the last known living Black Angel, at the DNPs of Color conference in Washington D.C.

The Black Angels: Celebrating Black Nursing History

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The Black Angels: Celebrating Black Nursing History

Virginia Allen, LPN, the last known living Black Angel, at the DNPs of Color conference in Washington D.C.
Nurses of color have played a crucial role in shaping the profession’s history. Yet, for too long, many of nursing’s most powerful stories have been untold. Through efforts to dismantle racism within the profession, these untold stories are beginning to emerge, including the story of the Black Angels, whose tireless efforts led to a cure for tuberculosis. For its 100th episode, the SEE YOU NOW podcast attended the DNPs of Color conference in Washington D.C., to highlight a powerful conversation with Virginia Allen, LPN, the last known living Black Angel. Celebrate Black History Month with the trailblazing story of Allen and the nurses whose dedication helped to cure one of the most fatal diseases of the 19th century.
Nurses of color have played a crucial role in shaping the profession’s history. Yet, for too long, many of nursing’s most powerful stories have been untold. Through efforts to dismantle racism within the profession, these untold stories are beginning to emerge, including the story of the Black Angels, whose tireless efforts led to a cure for tuberculosis. For its 100th episode, the SEE YOU NOW podcast attended the DNPs of Color conference in Washington D.C., to highlight a powerful conversation with Virginia Allen, LPN, the last known living Black Angel. Celebrate Black History Month with the trailblazing story of Allen and the nurses whose dedication helped to cure one of the most fatal diseases of the 19th century.
2024-02-20T16:29:38.939Z

From Mary Eliza Mahoney – the first Black woman to work as a licensed nurse – to Sandra Lindsay, RN – the first person in the US to receive a COVID-19 vaccination outside of clinical trials – nurses of color have played an integral role in the profession’s history. Yet, for too long, discrimination and racism have erased many of nursing’s most powerful stories.

Despite oppression and prejudice, the work of Black nurses has led to some of medicine’s greatest advances, and their tenacity, empathy, and commitment to proactively transform healthcare and change patients’ lives have defined the spirit of the profession.

Now, through efforts to dismantle racism within the profession, these stories are being acknowledged, shared widely, and celebrated, including the story of the Black Angels. To help share this groundbreaking story, the SEE YOU NOW podcast attended the DNPs of Color conference in Washington D.C., to highlight a powerful conversation among Virginia Allen, LPN, the last known living Black Angel, Maria Smilios, author of the new book, ‘The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis, and Nurses You Should Know creators Joanna Seltzer Uribe and Ravenne Aponte. Recorded live, this 100th episode of the podcast shows how Allen perfectly embodies the trailblazing, change-making, pioneer spirit of SEE YOU NOW and the nursing profession.

Nurses You Should Know creator Ravenne Aponte (right) interviewing Virginia Allen, the last known living Black Angel, on stage at the the DNPs of Color conference in Washington D.C.
Source: DNPs of Color; credit: LeDon Carroll, Cinematic Imagery

Celebrate Black History Month by listening to Episode 100: The Untold Story of the Black Angels and read on for more.

Who were the Black Angels?

More than 300 courageous Black nurses uprooted their lives in the Jim Crow South to seek economic opportunity as nurses caring for tuberculosis patients at Sea View Hospital in New York from 1928 to 1960. Others refused to help, fearing spread of the disease, but these exceptional women, including Virginia Allen, stepped forward and risked their lives amid racism and poor working conditions to care for the city’s poorest residents. In doing so, they contributed to a breakthrough TB treatment, and their dedication and commitment to their critically ill patients earned these nurses the title of the Black Angels.

The Black Angels’ impact on finding the tuberculosis cure

In her book, author Maria Smilios captures an oral history of the nurses at Sea View Hospital, a public facility built specifically to care for those with tuberculosis, and the role they played in the drug trials for the antibiotic isoniazid, which helped lead to a cure for the devastating disease.

Then known as the “white plague,” tuberculosis was a painful, debilitating contagious disease responsible for nearly 18% of New York City deaths in the early 1900s. It killed one out of every seven people in both the United States and Europe, primarily affecting working-class citizens.

Smilios describes the suffering and bleak conditions the Black Angels faced when they arrived at New York’s largest municipal sanitarium in 1929.

“Hundreds of patients lay in iron framed beds, languishing,” wrote Smilios. “They sweated and groaned and cried out. They coughed and choked and spit up blood,” with each cough “sending swarms of live germs…into every room and corner of the ward.”

Historically, the nurses at Sea View had been predominantly white, but by this time many refused to treat tuberculosis patients and walked out en masse. Desperate to avert a public health crisis, city officials recruited Black nurses from the south. For them, it was the first opportunity to work in a non-segregated environment that did not discriminate through intentional exclusion in hiring or hospital quotas. At any time, a nurse could be responsible for 20 patients each and could take three hours to take care of one person.

Virginia Allen arrived at Sea View from Detroit in 1947, when she was just 16 years old. With no prior work and very little life experience, she came to New York during a time of great economic potential and innovations in medicine. Antibiotics were a new phenomenon; a new nurse shortage had the nation on the precipice of a public health crisis. Allen became one of hundreds recruited to fill the ranks at Sea View. She stayed for over a decade, caring for tuberculosis patients until a cure was developed in 1951.

There, she witnessed and supported the isoniazid drug trials as physicians raced for a cure. Isoniazid was one of four frontline drugs that produced remarkable results in tuberculosis patients on the brink of death. An ailing patient could suddenly get out of bed, walk and talk. The Black Angels administered the Isoniazid to patients, took their vitals, and evaluated them - all essential to the success of the drug trials.

“The people at the front of these trials are the nurses,” Smilios said. “They knew the disease better than anybody. The nurses had been working there for decades. They knew how tuberculosis ebbed and flowed. They knew its nuances. They knew how the microbe was arrogant and wily and how it could lay low. One morning, somebody would wake up feeling okay, and by the afternoon they'd be hemorrhaging. The nurses could pick up intonations in a voice that would signal to them something is wrong.”

At the DNPs of Color conference, Allen said she feels “very privileged” to represent the Black Angels. “It’s important to be remembered – they would be very pleased, knowing that they are appreciated, and their work is remembered…The doctors received a lot of recognition, but the nurses were overlooked,” she said.

Virginia Allen, the last known living Black Angel, speaking on stage with Joanna Seltzer Uribe, Maria Smilios, and Ravenne Aponte at the DNPs of Color conference in Washington, D.C.
Source: Oriana Beaudet

A legacy of “triumph and hope”

The legacy of the Black Angels extends beyond the cure for tuberculosis. As Smilios writes, the work they did at Sea View informed their fight against systemic and institutional racism. At that time, they were barred from joining professional nursing organizations. The nurses who worked in the tuberculosis wards played an important role in pushing the American Nurses Association to admit Black nurses.

The Black Angels played an important role in helping to desegregate New York City hospitals. At the time, Black nurses were only permitted to work at four of the 26 facilities within the Department of Hospitals. Their exclusion eventually led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, which elevated Sea View’s nurses into well-deserved leadership positions and prepared them for the impending Civil Rights Movement.

Allen describes meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “He was very, very supportive of us. Every year he would come and speak, and we called it a day of solidarity.”

Virginia is really a trailblazer, as she represents the relentless courage of a generation of nurses who carved out the space, sometimes at the own expense of their safety and well-being, for the next generation of nurses, and to provide the care for those who were neglected,” said Joanna Seltzer Uribe, co-founder of Nurses You Should Know.

In the SEE YOU NOW episode, Smilios describes the honor and privilege of telling the Black Angels’ story.

“It’s not just a story of nursing. It is a story of resilience. It's a story of medicine,” she said. “This is ultimately a story of triumph and hope.”


Learn more about the efforts to dismantle discrimination and undo the harms of racism in nursing here.

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