Women’s History Month: The little-known story of the Black Angels, nurses who treated tuberculosis patients
NEW YORK — As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we have a little-known story about nurses on the front line of a pandemic, but this one is not about COVID-19.
Back in the early 1900s, tuberculosis was reported to be responsible for nearly 18% of all deaths in New York City. This is a story of how Black nurses stepped in to care for the patients, and it introduces one of the last living “Black Angels.”
“When I came here, I was 16, working as a nurse’s aide and I got my training through Seaview Hospital,” Virginia Allen said.
That was in 1947. Allen left her home in Detroit to follow her aunt, who was working as a nurse at the Staten Island hospital. Seaview opened in 1913, specifically to treat patients who were suffering from tuberculosis, a horrific disease that was killing millions.
“I was too young to be sophisticated enough to be afraid,” Allen said. “A lot of people wanted to forget about tuberculosis, because it was so devastating to so many.”
By 1929, almost all of the white nurses there refused to care for patients.
“Most of them worked in administration, and they never really worked on the ward with the patients,” Allen said.
So Black nurses were recruited from around the country. The front-line caregivers, about 300 of them, became known as the “Black Angels.”
“This gave them an opportunity to work in a non-segregated environment, and to use the skills that they were taught. And that was reason enough to come here,” Allen said. “It gave the Black nurses a bigger and better opportunity to live comfortably.”
Allen, now 91, spent 10 years at Seaview and worked on the pediatric ward.
“Administrators, at that time, wanted young women. They were unmarried. They could work long hours. They had no obligations to anybody but their job,” said Maria Smilios, author of “The Black Angels.” “I mean, these women had like 20 patients each, which is huge. And the average care for to take care of somebody with tuberculosis could be 180 minutes.”
Smilios’ book is set to be published in the fall.
“The nurses had to keep daily logs of what was going on in the wards. It is page after page of pain and anguish and suffering,” Smilios said. “Virginia loved children. You know, she talked a lot with me about holding them and reading to them.”
At its peak, there were nearly 2,000 patients in the facility, almost double the intended capacity.
“At a time when people were running away, at a time when people were terrified and rightfully terrified, because it was a very dangerous time, they stepped in and had the courage to do the right thing. And they rescued people,” said Stacey Toussaint, a local historian and owner of Inside Out Tours.
Toussaint includes the story of the Black Angels as part of her Black and Women’s History tours. This story marked the first time she met one in person.
“To be able to talk to someone who, as far as I’m concerned, is living history, and be able to be trusted with their story, there’s no greater honor than that,” Toussaint said.
It was at Seaview in 1957 that Dr. Edward Robitzek helped develop one of the drugs credited as a tuberculosis treatment.
“The patients were going through trial and error. The doctors would never have found it, the cure, because the nurses were administered … administering to the patients,” Allen said.
“At the time, these residents and patients were were put on this island to be sort of isolated from and quarantined, if you will. And, I just think the story hasn’t been told or given as much attention as it deserves,” said Matthew Levy, CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals/Seaview.
Seaview closed its doors as a pandemic facility in 1961. Today, it’s a rehabilitation and nursing facility. But the past is still very much alive there. In the surgical pavilion there are rooms filled with original artifacts from the Black Angels era.
“Virginia is an angel, a real life angel. And, really, everything we do every day sort of harkens back to her ability and love for taking care of people,” Levy said.
“It takes my breath away sometimes to still be here and to be able to talk about it. It’s very, very emotional because I’m speaking for many people, not just myself. But I am proud and happy that I am able to do it,” Allen said.
Allen still lives on the grounds in the former nurses dormitory, which has been converted into senior housing.