As we celebrate Black History Month the legacies of women like Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, often come to mind. Many people may not be aware that in addition to her heroic efforts to free the enslaved, Harriet Tubman was also a nurse, like her predecessor, Elizabeth Tyler, the first African American nurse to be hired by the Visiting Nurse Service of New York and Henry Street Settlement here in New York City, who was a visiting nurse and a woman of color whose dedication to her community left a lasting legacy.
When Elizabeth was recruited to join VNSNY in 1906, having graduated nursing school a decade before, she brought with her years of experience that included extensive fieldwork and advanced training. Yet healthcare was still segregated in the U.S., and at the time this meant that Elizabeth was not allowed to treat white patients. So, taking a page from the book of VNSNY’s founder, Lillian Wald, Elizabeth started her own initiative in the African American neighborhood of San Juan Hill, stretching from the West 50s up through the West 60s on Manhattan’s West Side, where she began treating the local residents.
Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases were widespread at the time and Elizabeth Tyler’s skills were desperately needed. To gain the trust of the people in the community, she befriended the building staff who were responsible for maintaining all the buildings in the neighborhood—knowing that if the staff vouched for her, their tenants would welcome her into their homes.
Not long after that, Elizabeth persuaded Lillian Wald to let her open up a branch of the Henry Street Settlement/VNSNY on West 62nd Street called the Stillman House Settlement. She founded the branch with two other African American home care pioneers: the very first African American public health nurse in U.S. history, Jessie Sleet Scales, and Edith Carter, the first African American nurse to provide primary maternal and infant care in New York City.
Like the tenement population of VNSNY’s first site on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, many of these residents were living in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Faced with a community mortality rate of more than 5%—largely due to tuberculosis and pneumonia in that pre-antibiotic era—and an infant mortality rate of 2.5%, nursing historian Marie O. Pitts Mosley wrote, “these courageous, self-assured women assumed the monumental task of providing physical comfort, psychological support, health education and bedside care to thousands of Black infants, children, men, and women.”
In addition to providing essential home health care to thousands of San Juan Hill residents over the years, these pioneering public health nurses expanded the Stillman House Settlement from its original small storefront location into a central neighborhood hub for support services and activities that included classes, social clubs and a circulating library. Elizabeth, Jessie and Edith also became influential leaders and role models for Black nursing professionals across America.
When it comes to home health care in New York, Black History Month is a time to celebrate not only heroines like Elizabeth Tyler, Jessie Sleet Scales and Edith Carter—but also the dedicated and often unsung heroes who carry on their legacies, by caring for the most vulnerable among us every single day.