If the current flow of reviews and promos are any indication, Maria Smilios’s new book “The Black Angels: The Untold Stories of the Nurses who Helped Cure Tuberculosis,” should be a welcomed addition to our canon, and, for the most part, certainly consistent with the aim and purpose of this weekly column.
Nearly two years ago, Lisa Herndon, the Schomburg Center’s manager of communications and publications, featured a story on Virginia Allen, deemed one of the last surviving “Black Angel.”
According to Herndon’s vivid account of Allen’s life and her maternal aunt Edna Sutton Ballard, there is sure to be some overlap with Smilios’s research and discussion.
But let’s stay with Herndon’s story, where she says that Allen has been a volunteer at the Schomburg since 2010 and spent 10 years at Seaview, the hospital on Staten Island. It was during family visits to Detroit that Allen learned of the Black Angels and their dedication to treat the afflicted, which influenced her own desire to become a nurse.
Then there is the story of another Michigander, Stiversa Bethel, who became a Black Angel after graduating from Lincoln School of Nurses in 1935. According to a citation from the Staten Island Museum, “she joined the WWII Cadet Nurse Corps in 1943 and went back to school, graduating with a B.S. from Columbia University. She rose to the position of acting assistant director of nurses at Harlem [Hospital] before transferring to Seaview in 1950. She became superintendent of nurses at Seaview Hospital in 1958 and served in that role until 1966.”
So remarkable was her service that in 1984 the Stiversa Bethel Healthcare Museum at Seaview was named in her honor. Bethel died just months after attending the opening ceremony.
Marjorie Tucker Reed was another notable angel whose legacy was documented in a film by Denetra Hampton. Marjorie was born December 15, 1925 to Damond and Lula Tucker in Norfolk, Virgina. She arrived in Staten Island in 1935 and attended Public School 18 and McKee High School. In 1946, she began employment at Seaview Hospital and later was accepted under what was called a “waiver program,” moving her to the corps of Black Angels at the hospital to care for tuberculosis patients.
A diligent and determined caretaker, she went on to become a licensed practical nurse, applying those skills at other hospitals in the Metropolitan Area. However, she returned to Seaview Hospital Rehab Center and Home to complete the circle and retired in 1988. She died in 2018.
We should note that Seaview was built around 1913 and was soon the largest sanatorium in the United States to treat those with tuberculosis. The state of New York was hit the hardest of any state in the nation. Unfortunately, there was no cure at the time, and white nurses walked away from their posts at Seaview. During a time of segregation, African American nurses were not allowed to work with white nurses, but this soon changed and the state issued a call for nurses around the nation. Black nurses came from far and near. They were coined “The Black Angels” by the patients they cared for, and became instrumental in the cure for tuberculosis, pioneered at Seaview Hospital in the early 1950s by Dr. Edward Robitzek.
Edna, Virginia, Stiversa, and Marjorie are just three of the 300 nurses who comprised the Black Angels and hopefully they are included with more biography, along with others in Smilios’s book.
The document below is Stiversa Bethel’s affidavit and application which notes that she lived in Harlem on 144th Street—just two blocks from my address.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article misstated that Virginia Allen was the last surviving “Black Angel.” She is one of the last surviving.