The Public Health Nurses of Jim Crow Florida tells the story of healthcare workers who battled racism in a state where white supremacy formed the bedrock of society. Read below for a Q&A with the author, Christine Ardalan.
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Why do you think telling this story is important, and what new perspective does your book add that hasn’t previously been touched on?
CA: Today, it is abundantly clear that the ongoing crisis in healthcare threatens to leave the most vulnerable population without medical care and support. Consider the stark differential between Black and white deaths due to COVID-19 or the fact that African American women experience worse outcomes during childbirth than any other major ethic group. Black infants are more than twice as likely as white infants to die within their first year, due largely to premature birth, low birth weight, or birth defects. These disparities point to the long-term effects of deep-rooted cultural mores that bred and perpetuated racialized health disparities. If finding solutions to right the inequities of healthcare is a paramount goal for today, understanding the historical contingency of them is the key to start the conversation. This leads to the importance of telling the story of the public health nurses of Florida during the Jim Crow era. It sheds light on the way the cultural construction of health influenced the nurses’ efforts to serve those left out of the reach of modern medical care.
Public Health Nurses of Jim Crow Florida offers a distinct window into how the mostly white and a few Black pioneering professional women tackled the state’s health issues. The nurses faced an uphill battle considering the stark difference between white and Black infant mortality rates, tuberculosis rates, and other disease rates. In a state where white male supremacy was the bedrock of society, these nurses were often the only ones available to literally save people’s lives and serve all regardless of race. Their interplay and interconnections with midwives, country people, and others illustrate the nurses’ commitment to allay fears, alleviate layers of disconnect, and bring the promise of contemporary medicine across the racial divide. This new perspective on the history of Florida’s Black and white nurses demonstrates that, in fact, these early public health nurses laid the groundwork for today’s community nurses who strive for social justice.
What do you hope your book adds to the ongoing conversation of social and human rights?
CA: Today, health care challenges are interwoven with social justice and civil rights concerns. If maintaining healthy lives for all Americans is a matter of meeting the nation’s deep-rooted cultural challenges, then my hope is that this book will add to the conversation. History shows that racial laws and customs complicated the nurses’ delivery of care during Jim Crow. However, it was by knowing and understanding the people of the community—with a humanity and concern about the welfare of others—that helped them to reach and get through to those left out of medical care.
My hope is that leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement will acknowledge precedents to their program with the public health nurses of Florida, both Black and white. Some stand out. Rosa Williams Brown, for example, was one who wanted to take the matter of Black lives into her own hands. She arrived in Jacksonville from New York in 1914 with a clear vision: “We could see the needs of . . . our people as no one else could,” she insisted. However, it took her 15 years before she could prove the value of her work and begin to make change in the deplorable living and health conditions of the “negro section” in Palm Beach county. Brown paved the way for others to follow in spite of differences and marginalization, and the legacy of her struggles remains with us today.
Why did you choose to focus on Florida specifically when writing your book? Was there something particular about the state that was more compelling?
CA: There are many reasons I particularly wanted to write about the history of nursing in Florida. The geographical and environmental challenges, as well as the cultural challenges, made Florida a particularly compelling study. Soon after I arrived in Miami, and early in my studies, I met Thelma Gibson, an African American nurse and community leader. She not only told me her story, but also introduced me to her colleagues who inspired me to expand my study. Some of the nurses were public health nurses, and helped me to understand their everyday lives during Jim Crow and the road blocks they overcame in their careers. This was especially important and valuable to me as I was born and raised in England without much, or any, knowledge of American history.
Further into my research I read about the early public health nurses—just three in 1914 to cover the whole state. The state was so large and unique in its geography and climate that when the State Health Officer reported nurses “always find the patient, even though it takes a long walk, or drive, or row boat trip combined to reach the destination,” I was hooked. The nurses’ own words in subsequent accounts went further and illustrated their journeys. They climbed fences, traversed cotton fields, waded through flood water and drove “where there were no roads.” Such journeys illustrated the differences of Florida’s territory and the unique rural environment that was covered by these nurses. The fact they often travelled alone added an additional layer of interest. The devastating hurricanes of the 1920s also offered dramatic environmental issues to include in accounts of the public health nurses’ work.
If readers are to take away one thing from this book, what do you hope it is?
CA: This book shows how the disparities in health ignited the public health nurses’ mission to alleviate suffering. The nurses became bridges to connect with people both physically and mentally, and it is these interpersonal connections between nurses and those they sought to serve, that suggest their work could add to today’s conversation of connecting health policy with social action. My hope is that a glimpse of the historical contingency in Florida will help to make today’s voices for change louder and stronger. My hope is that we can change some of the ways we connect and support each other to address and change the disparities in today’s healthcare matters.
All quotes are taken from the book, The Public Health Nurses of Jim Crow Florida.
This book is currently available at a discount price with free shipping. Order here and use code WHM21, valid through March 31, 2021.