Excerpt from A Nickel and a Prayer
Fortune favored me. As nurse maid for the three lovely children of Major and Mrs. Benjamin Rutledge in Charleston, I had employment in surroundings of a far more attractive type than any I had yet known. The Rutledge home stood on South Battery, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean; and except for the Smythe mansion, it was the most beautiful house I had ever seen. The Rutledges were a noble family. Mrs. Rutledge took a personal interest in my welfare, watched over the company I kept, and required me to be in every night by nine o’clock. I grew very fond of the family, and they were not ashamed to show their fondness for me.
The entire atmosphere was diametrically different from the one I had known years earlier in the employ of Mrs. Wilson at Anderson. In this new position I was patiently shown how to perform each of my duties, and treated as an intelligent human being, not a useful robot. Years later in my present work, when it became my duty to supervise the training of young women for domestic service, I looked back to the days in the Rutledge household and felt grateful for that experience.
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It was while in the Rutledge household that it occurred to me that only the select lived hidden in the evergreens, amid beautiful gardens of flowers. I began to understand how wonderfully Nature had endowed the earth, and how a skilled landscape artist could assist Nature so to charm the human eye by a touch of cultivation. In the parks with the children I saw great oaks, the graceful elms draped in moss; the palm tree from which the palmetto fan is derived, and from which South Carolina takes it name, “The Palmetto State.” How wonderfully fragrant were the magnolia trees with their white blossoms, the harbinger to the southerner that springtime has come.
Like Paul the apostle I considered myself fortunate, indeed, to be in the “Big House” on the front, sharing these bounties with the family. As I grew older, the thought often ran through my mind whether the other servants downstairs in the rear of the mansion saw and appreciated these scenes of beauty, and enjoyed the peace of the God-made trees, as I was privileged to enjoy them.
The Rutledges paid me better wages, which helped to send Rebecca to Ferguson and Williams College. Rosa was given the job I once had at the school; and now that my sisters were under the influence of the Williams, I could go ahead with my own ambitions. Mrs. Ella Hunt, an influential Negro woman, took an interest in me. With her suggestions I applied for admission to the Cannon Street Hospital and Training School for Nurses. There were eighty applicants on
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the list ahead of me; but because of Mrs. Hunt’s interest in me, I was accepted for training within a month after filing my application.
Students in any well conducted hospital of the present day would be amazed at the strenuous manual labor exacted from the nurses at the Cannon Street Hospital. There were few servants. We nurses did most of the cooking and cleaning for the entire establishment. In time we became expert barbers; haircutting and shaving of the men patients devolved upon us in the absence of orderlies.
There was no attempt to induct the young woman gradually into the more distasteful and repellent aspects of hospital work. My first afternoon in the hospital was spent in observing an appendectomy--a distressing and hopeless case, since the appendix had ruptured and gangrene had set in. At eleven o’clock that night I was called out of bed to prepare the dead man for burial. Together with three other nurses, I carried the corpse, swung in a sheet, down the stairs to the morgue. But I had my mother’s exuberant vitality and love of life; no experience, however gruesome, could discourage me.
The methods of instruction were as direct and practical as those of the Squeers School. I had a thorough lesson in anatomy at an autopsy on the body of a Negro worker who had broken his neck in the phosphate mines. In autopsies the nurses assisted, using he scalpel and saw as frequently
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as did the lecturing surgeon. We examined every organ and part of the human anatomy, which knowledge proved a source of great help to me. I learned the composition of the blood, as I carried it fresh from the slaughter house and whipped it, as I went along, to separate the fibrin from the serum. Crude though the methods of instruction may seem, they must have been effective. Before I had finished my course at Cannon Street, I was entrusted with treatments and manipulations which usually demanded the skilled hands of a surgeon.
There were other circumstances that might have disheartened one who had less vigor and determined spirits. Favoritism, rivalry and jealousy kept the training school in a state of feverish agitation. Here, as elsewhere in the South, the caste system based upon color prevailed. I witnessed an interesting instance of this species of discrimination when I attended a Negro church and found the congregation grouped chromatically--“high yellows” to the right, “chocolate browns” to the left, and genuine “ebony blacks” in the middle section!
However scornfully I may have regarded such snobbery, I found myself profiting by it during my first year at the hospital. I was lighter in complexion than any of the other students, and this difference of pigmentation won favors and privileges for me. When at the end of a year, a student whose skin was a shade ghter than mine entered, I was
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displaced. All that really concerned me, however, was my profession; hard and disagreeable work, jealousy, unjust discrimination could not deter me from giving the best in me to the doctors and patients whom I served.
Progressing rapidly, after only six months’ training, I was recalled to the Rutledge home as nurse for one of the children who was ill with scarlet fever. I was “Nurse Hunter,” now, and I worked hard to justify my new dignity and save my little patient, to whom I was devoted. It was my first case away from the hospital, and I felt my whole future might turn on how I handled it.
Our hospital was staffed by colored doctors; but most of the major operations were performed by white surgeons, chief of whom was Dr. T. Grange Simons, the leading surgeon in Charleston. He was said to dislike Negroes; however that may have been, he liked my work as surgical nurse, and gave instructions that I should be assigned to duty for all of his cases. Recognition from a source so important gave me enormous confidence. Only a short time since I had been a field hand, a cotton picker, a laundress; I was now on my way to an accepted place in a trained profession. I studied indefatigably, mastering the names of a hundred instruments, keeping eyes and ears alert at all time to the needs of the operating surgeon, and leaving no stone unturned to master the details of nursing.
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When I was ready to graduate, Dr. McClellan offered me the position of head nurse. But my deep admiration of Dr. Simons and my success in serving him had made me decide to ask him for work in private practice. With plenty of nurses of his own race eager to work for the head of surgery at the Charleston City Hospital, would he employ me? That was the question. One night, like Nicodemus, I mustered up courage and stole to his office. The reception room was in a state of disorder, books and papers scattered all about. Stooping quickly, as he emerged from his private office, I recovered a book which lay face down on the floor, leaves crumpled; and handing the book to him, I remarked that it deserved better treatment. The incident undoubtedly served to remind him of my carefulness in the operating room. When I told him the object of my visit, he took my name and addressed and promised I would hear from him.
The call came a day later. It was Dr. Simons himself, who came to employ me, my lack of phone service preventing his reaching me more directly. So marked a courtesy from this gruff, kindly dean of his profession placed me under double obligation. I gave to the typhoid patient every ounce of my skill and devotion.
My decision to serve Dr. Simons was justified, and my courage rewarded. The opportunity for a larger life came
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when my mind was most receptive to the new and broader education which awaited me.
My first call to nurse in Summerville, South Carolina, the little town of Pine Hurst Inn and a winter resort for the wealthy people from the North, came one hot day in July. I had learned from the physician that the patient was suffering from nervous exhaustion. On the train en route to Summerville I wondered how I could satisfy a Northern lady, when I had never seen one before, to my knowledge. I had heard that Yankees were impatient and difficult to please. However, the scenery and the sign boards between Charleston and Summerville arrested my attention and saved me from becoming nervous over the new case. The patient was an expectant mother, suffering from nervous exhaustion, as the physician had informed me. I applied gentle Swedish massage, which served as a sedative to the patient. No medicine was to be ordered, so my only recourse in saving my reputation built up in Charleston was to give frequent baths and continued Swedish treatments, except, of course, when the patient was asleep.
That was my first hard case. I remained with the patient for six weeks. Then she returned to New York for the birth of the baby. I received an excellent recommendation from her, which helped to place me in another family.
This new patient was a member of the Wagner family, which owned the Wagner Sleeping Car Company before
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the Pullman Service invaded the South. The patient’s first baby was born in New York under a great obstetrician, and at the cost of several thousand dollars, I was told. The interesting feature to the family in the case of the second birth was that it was a more beautiful and healthy baby.
Throughout the many years, I have held the names of these first babies sacred. One need only scan the social registry of the South to find their names listed among active and useful citizens.
As I traveled from Charleston to Summerville, it became known abroad that I was an efficient nurse and a hard worker. Dr. Charles U. Shepard, the owner of the Shepard Tea Farm in Summerville, sent for me to nurse a case of typhoid fever--a young Negro girl whose parents he employed. I took charge of the case and gave the best my skilled profession had to offer. Dr. Shepard and the attending physician called each day to see the patient, until the danger stage had passed. When the child recovered, Dr. Shepard offered me the position of Head Nurse in his Negro Hospital. Here, unaware, I had won another influential friend, a man who had contributed much to the municipal growth of Summerville and its citizenry. I declined this kind offer to serve the hospital. He continued helpful, however, and introduced me to an eminent physician whose practice was far-reaching, and caused me to receive numerous and regular calls to Summerville.
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In spare moments, I visited with my own people From both races I learned of the cordial relationship of the Negroes and whites. The educated Negro was held in high esteem among those of both races.
The Negro servant who gave loyalty to his employer in his long years of service was contented and happy. The employer, in most cases considerate and kind-hearted, exercised a continual paternal interest in the welfare and advancement of his Negro employees. He was interested even to the point of giving free legal service in the courts when there seemed to be imposition upon the Negro.
Because of his trustworthiness and loyalty to his employer, great responsibility was often put upon him. The training the Negro received, through his contact as an individual with the white man in the South, laid the foundation stone for his rapid progress. Especially does the Negro in business need to remember the days when such contacts and training enabled him to make the shoes and clothes worn by the white population, when machinery was less in vogue, and competition not so keen as it is today. In a measure, the Negro’s early vision for his future was enlarged by these opportunities.
In 1933 I returned to Summerville to find it more beautiful than ever. In passing through the town, I paused to inquire about the families there I had once served. Dr. Shepard had passed away, but on the main street I spied on the second floor of a building
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help the people of my race.
Much of my work was in the obstetrical field. I remember the case of one wretched Negro woman whose common-law husband had deserted her and her five children ranging in age from one to six years. Another baby was expected within an hour. The doctor called me at twilight on Sunday and told me where to go and what to do. I felt sure that he would follow shortly.
When I entered the one-room apartment, I was amazed to see the mother sitting on a filthy ash-strewn floor, and huddled about her the five children, crying from terror and pangs of hunger. There was one stick of wood, but not a lump of coal in the house. How could I effect the necessary sterilization? While one of the neighbors rushed for the doctor, only to find him out, another hurried to the head nurse of the hospital, who sent me a lantern filled with kerosene and a bundle of newspapers. Cramming the latter into the open fireplace and striking a match, I contrived to raise a fire and heat some water. Then covering the filthy mattress with newspapers, I ordered my patient to get into bed.
“Ah no get into bed. I nebber libbers on de bed. I always libbers on de floor.”
“Well, Auntie, you aren’t going to ‘libber’ on ‘de’ floor this time,” I replied.
But as it happened I was mistaken; for before I could get
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Dixie Hospital and Training School for Nurses at Hampton Institute, Virginia. The training I received here was excellent, but was attended with trials and tribulations. For three months I was a probationer, washing walls, scrubbing floors and a long corridor, helping in the kitchen and dining room. A kindly matron, Miss Mollie Williamson, assisted me in passing many ordeals until I was assigned to a ward and allowed to demonstrate my efficiency in nursing. Patients began to ask for “Nurse Hunter,” and the Superintendent showed her approval of my work by assigning me to the operating room, where I attracted the attention of the senior surgeon and was kept busy handling his cases.
The consciousness of greater success and new power in my profession made me very happy. My social life, too, had become fuller and more enjoyable. On Sunday in the Hampton Institute Chapel, I loved to listen to the students singing spirituals, again reviving the happiest memories of childhood. On Saturdays the Hampton boys were permitted to call on the Dixie nurses. While I enjoyed the friendship of a number of fine young men, among them a splendid machinist, I never permitted myself to become seriously interested. My marriage had been a failure; I must be careful not to encourage any of these young men.
How good it was to be in Dixie!
There was a cloud on the horizon, however, that I
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the name, “Legare Walker, Attorney-at-Law.” I said to myself, “Why, that is the name of the man into whose home I helped bring the most beautiful baby I have ever seen.” I stopped the car and climbed the stairs in that building--to find here, not the father, but a handsome son. He had not yet been born when I left Summerville twenty-nine years past; but he said his mother had often told him and his sister about me, their nurse. It was good to know that I was remembered for the service I had rendered.
You may be sure that in the early years of my nursing career I worked more zealously, and for longer hours than many a white nurse. Racial prejudice was an obstacle that could be overcome only by unusual devotion to duty and outstanding success. My prayer was not to lose a single case. I have said I was fortunate in my professional contacts to have had work with cultured people. This was no snobbish feeling, but a realization that my success in these situations would give me a prestige valuable to my career. Then, too, I was able to acquire some of the gentler ways which my earlier underprivileged years had denied me.
Work in the horrible slums of historic Charleston was no less a privilege than the experience in the homes of the well-to-do. In the Negro quarters of the city I saw conditions that were much worse than any I had known. They quickened my sympathies and renewed my purpose to do something to
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her onto the mattress where I felt only a miracle could prevent infection, a twelve-pound baby boy, black as ebony, bounced into the world to set up a wail as lusty as that of any year-old infant. Fortunately the delivery was normal. Bathing and applying antiseptic precaution and sterilized dressings to the mother, I proceeded to bathe the newcomer and wrap him in one of my underskirts, the only layette I could put my hands on. Then I cleaned the floor and put the wretched room into a semblance of order. When I took my departure, the mother was on the floor, reclining contentedly on an old coat.
The nurses at the hospital were so touched by this story that they made up an outfit for the baby and a flannelet gown for the mother, which I took with me the following day. The doctor came in during my visit; and upon examining the baby’s eyes and navel cord, praised my work. He was sorry to have left me in the lurch, he explained, but Sundays were the only days he had with his family!
For several weeks my sympathy for the woman and her family kept me in touch with this case. I was curious to discover whether the baby’s extraordinary inkiness would diminish. It didn’t. If ever a full-blooded African was born in America, that child seemed to be the one.
The time had come when I felt the need for more advanced training. At Dr. Simon’s advice, I entered
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had been too busy and too happy to see. One morning when I had been at Dixie for one year, the Superintendent sent for me and said that my services were no longer required. My pride was severely hurt, but my conscience was clear. Although I was well aware, through petty persecutions, of the head nurse’s dislike and jealousy of my popularity with the student body, I was innocent of any infraction of rules or dereliction of duty. I made up my mind, then and there, that if I ever became superintendent of an institution, I would never dismiss a student without first satisfying myself that there was a cause for the dismissal, and without explaining it to the student.
Bitterly as I resented this injustice, I have never held Hampton Institute responsible for the wrong.
Dismissed and disgraced, but with undaunted courage and full confidence in myself, I turned my thoughts toward Florida, where I intended to practice my profession.
En route I stopped at Richmond, Virginia, to visit with Mr. and Mrs. William Coleman, friends of Uncle Parris. They were at church when I arrived; so I sat on the doorstep to await their return. After these good friends had greeted me, Mrs. Coleman said, “Our bags are packed to go to Cleveland, Jane. We are going to take you with us.”
I was swept off my feet by the cheerful determination of the Colemans. My trunk, not yet removed from the station, was rechecked to Cleveland.