Mapping Care Project: The History of Black Nurses in Chicago

Provident Hospital and Training School, 1891-1929

Brown and wonderful with longing
To cure ills of Africa,
And mankind,
Also ills quite common
Among all who stand on two feet.

Langston Hughes wrote these verses in his poem "Interne at Provident" published in 1958. The poem in its entirety spoke to the continuing need of Black doctors and nurses to further develop their medical skills and practice their professions and it is no coincidence that Hughes' poem features Provident. Today, Provident Hospital is often described as a living legacy, but to appreciate it as such, one must first acknowledge its origins. At the heart of the 1891 founding of Provident Hospital and Training School in Chicago is the story of a determined Black woman eager to hone her craft of service and care in the field of nursing.
Reconstructing A Collective Racial Identity and Battling Jim Crow in the North
Emma A. Reynolds was born in Frankfort, Ohio in 1862. After graduating from Wilberforce University, she worked as a teacher in Kansas City, Missouri where she learned of the dramatic differences in how health care was provided for Black Americans. Envisioning a way to bridge that gap, Reynolds began applying to nursing schools but found that she was excluded solely on the basis of her race and color. After being denied admission to every nursing school in Chicago including the Illinois Training School for Nurses, Reynolds and her brother, Reverend Louis H. Reynolds appealed to Dr. Daniel Hale Williams for assistance.1

Shortly thereafter through a collective effort of Chicago's Black and white citizens, Provident Hospital and Training School opened its doors on May 4,1891 at 29th and Dearborn Street to patients and practitioners of all races. Members of the hospital's founding committee recognized the importance of the nursing school and acknowledged its significance in furthering the advancements of Black women in nursing. In the first annual report of the training school they proclaimed the hospital's first priority to be "the proper caring for the sick...and secondly and especially, the opening of a new field of useful and noble employment for colored women, who are otherwise barred from lucrative and respectable occupations."2

From the beginning, the nursing school set high standards in its admissions policy preferring women who had graduated high school and who prior to final admission would be subject to a month-long probation which would later be increased to three months by 1896.3 In its first year, one hundred and seventy-five applicants applied with only ten accepted for admission and only seven officially enrolled. On October 27, 1892 the Provident Hospital Nurse Training School (School) held its first graduation for four of its inaugural students: Lillian E. Haywood, Florence Phillips, Bertha I. Estes, and Emma A. Reynolds. Reynolds would further distinguish herself becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the Women's Medical College of Chicago in 1895 (now the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine).4 Despite the 1893 Depression and years of inadequate financing, the nursing school persevered and maintained high standards of excellence, furthering the training period for students to two years by 1896. School rules required day nurses to work a twelve hour shift with an hour for dinner and, where able, additional time allotted for rest or exercise. Student nurses also worked in the hospital's dispensary. The School's curriculum was diverse with courses ranging from training in antiseptic preparation and nursing for surgery, to cooking, dietetics, and massage. Provident's student nurses even administered their own visiting nurse service between 1896-1898, after the Chicago Visiting Nurse Association had denied an alumna employment in 1894.5

A Providential New Century Dawns: 1900-1929
As the turn of the century approached it became evident that the original hospital building, having only twelve beds, was insufficient to maintain the medical needs of the communities it served. Administration of the hospital and training school now fell to George Cleveland Hall who also served as the new Chief of Staff after Dr. Williams' departure to Freedmen's Hospital in 1894. Hall praised the skill and acumen of Provident's nurses asserting "the graduates of this institution are in charge of other training schools for nurses and kindred institutions...throughout the country."6 On June 7, 1898, the hospital moved to a building on 36th and Dearborn equipped with modern facilities and a seventy-five bed capacity. Two years later, the nurses' quarters were also expanded to include a dormitory and assembly room as a result of a generous monetary donation. Further developing the program, in 1902 two major changes were implemented: the expansion of the nursing program to three years of instruction and the organization of an alumnae association with Dr. Isabella Garnett, an 1895 Provident alumna as its president.7 Garnett served as the marquee example of a nurse whose work treated both the physical pains and social constraints of the Black community. She fulfilled Hall's declaration of faith in Provident's nurses' ability by working first as a school nurse and, like Emma Reynolds, becoming a doctor after matriculating from Chicago's College of Physicians and Surgeons (now UIC College of Medicine) in 1901.8 She recognized the same race prejudice that initiated the founding of Provident also existed for African Americans living in Evanston and on the North Shore who were refused medical treatment at both Evanston and St. Francis Hospitals. In 1914, Dr. Garnett and her husband Dr. Arthur Butler opened the Evanston Sanitarium on the upper floors of their home at 1918 Asbury Avenue as a general practice and a nurse training school. A year later, Garnett mentored another Provident graduate nurse, Rhoygnette Webb who began working at the Sanitarium as its head nurse and by 1918, the Sanitarium was incorporated and overseen by a multiracial board of directors.9

Provident's graduate nurses continued to be at the forefront of positive social change regardless of the persistent racial antagonism that followed them. At the height of the 1918 flu epidemic, two of Provident's graduate nurses served at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois despite the American Red Cross and the Army Nurse Corps' reluctance to accept Black nurses into service during WWI.10 By the 1920s, Provident Hospital and Training School began to suffer the loss of white patronage and instead handled a nearly-exclusive Black patient base due to Chicago's prominence as a destination for Southern Blacks in the Great Migration. Often, these new patients were impoverished and unable to pay for medical services, but the hospital refused to turn them away, abiding by their oath to care for all. This commitment did not come without consequence. The ongoing lack of payment for rendered services impacted the hospital's operating budget and by extension, the nursing school, as was evidenced in Ethel Johns' 1925 study commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation. Despite these setbacks, Provident had maintained its reputation and in 1928 sought to bolster it by affiliating with the University of Chicago. The partnership would provide Provident with advanced medical services and the ability to improve the educational standards of its physicians and nurses while the university would have an available facility to send their Black patients as well as their Black medical students who needed to complete clinical internships. On October 24, 1929, the institutions signed a provisional affiliation agreement. Even during the Great Depression, Provident again proved itself to be formidable and accepted the task of raising $1.5 million to purchase and renovate the one hundred-bed Chicago Lying-In Hospital as its new site. Four decades after Emma A. Reynolds fought for her right to serve as a professional nurse, Provident Hospital and Training School stood stalwart and strove to be a beacon of light for African American women and for all. It indeed had cemented its legacy and had answered the question posed in 1914, "What is, after all the deepest significance of Provident Hospital--the actual work within its wards, the skilled employment which its scientific training places within the reach of colored women, or the influence it radiates, through the association of races in its work, upon one of the very grave problems of this country?"11

Header Image: Class of 1904 nurses from Provident Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. From the 14th Annual Report of Provident Hospital and Training School, 1904-1905. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-030235


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