In 1929, Sea View Hospital was in crisis. The now-partially abandoned Staten Island medical facility was experiencing a mass exodus of white nurses while simultaneously handling an overwhelming amount of tuberculosis patients. To remedy the situation, New York City officials began recruiting Black female nurses from the South, offering freedom from the oppression of Jim Crow and the benefits of good pay, education, housing, and employment. The stories of these trailblazing nurses have gone largely untold for nearly a century, but now, author Maria Smilios sheds light on their achievements in her new book The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis.
You can learn more about The Black Angels in a live virtual talk with the author and Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers on November 1st!
The Black Angels Book Talk
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In the early half of the 20th century, tuberculosis killed over 5.6 million Americans. The disease was especially devasting to cities like New York where it ran rampant through crowded tenement houses and spread rapidly among poor communities. Those suffering from the disease were sent to various healthcare facilities around the edge of the city in hopes of containing the spread and giving patients clean, fresh air.
Tuberculosis patients filled the rooms of healthcare facilities such as the now-demolished Neponsit Beach Hospital in the Rockaways and Sea Breeze Hospital in Coney Island as well as a tuberculosis pavilion on North Brother Island. Some were even quarantined on ferry barges converted into floating wards run by Bellevue Hospital. One of the most famous tuberculosis sanitoriums, and the largest at one point, was Sea View Hospital in Staten Island.
Sea View Hospital opened in 1913 and was comprised of thirty-seven buildings. The sprawling complex sat at the second highest point on Staten Island, once the site of a grand hilltop estate called “Ocean View.” By the 1920s, when the 2,000-bed hospital was running out of nurses, it was called a “pest house” and a place where “no one left alive.” The Black Angels changed that.
Over the course of twenty years, women like Edna Sutton, Missouria Louvinia Meadows-Walker, Clemmie Philips, Janie Shirley, and Virginia Allen, bravely marched to the front lines of the epidemic and cared for patients who others turned their backs on. Not only did these women work grueling hours day in and day out and put themselves at risk to care for New York’s sick, but they did so while also fighting racism and discrimination.
At the time, most of New York City’s more than two dozen municipal hospitals discriminated against Black nurses in some way, whether that meant they simply were not allowed to be hired or there were quotas that limited the number of Black nurses who could be employed. While the medical breakthroughs of white, male doctors and researchers at Sea View who found a cure for tuberculosis have long been celebrated worldwide, the contributions of the Black nurses – who were among the first to administer the groundbreaking drug, isoniazid – have largely been kept alive in the memories of their families, friends, and local communities.
Using first-hand interviews and never-before-accessed archives, Smilios brings the stories of the Black Angels to centerstage, highlighting how their efforts helped to desegregate the New York City hospital system, stop discriminatory practices in medical education and medical research, and ultimately save countless lives. Learn more about The Black Angels from the author in our upcoming virtual talk, and get your own copy of The Black Angels, out now!
The Black Angels Book Talk
Next, check out 12 Abandoned Hospitals in NYC