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Black Cross nurses were the ‘heartbeat of providing health services’ to their communities

New TV series The Porter focuses on troubled history of Black nursing

Feb 18, 2022, By: Laura Eggertson
Courtesy of CBC, photo taken by Prairie Porter Inc. / Sienna Films Porter Inc.
The Porter is an eight-episode CBC and BET+ television series that features two Black Cross nurses, including Mouna Traoré starring as Marlene Massey, above. The series shines a spotlight on the nurses’ important and little-celebrated contribution to Canadian history.

Thelma Moore was just 21 years old in the summer of 1940, when the Toronto General Hospital’s School for Nurses crushed her dream of joining the ranks of her White peers.

Moore had written to the nursing school requesting an application, explaining she was “coloured,” according to a letter her father wrote describing her subsequent rejection.

“In reply she received a letter saying there were no vacancies, but never received the application form. She wrote them again using another name (her own name in Spanish) and another address,” Thelma’s father, Arthur C. Moore, wrote in the letter to the president of the Toronto Coloured Liberal Association.

“They replied saying, call at the Hospital [sic] for an interview; in the first instance they did not want her because she was coloured, secondly she would have been embarrassed had she gone for an interview.”

It was a year after the start of the Second World War. The Allied forces were clamouring for nurses, and 227 graduates of the Toronto nursing school would go on to serve.

None of them were Black Canadians.

Long after their U.S. counterparts began accepting African American students into nurses’ training courses in the 1870s, Canadian institutions continued to reject Black applicants, including Moore.

Black Cross Nurses formed

For many Black Canadians with a nursing vocation, their only avenue, aside from moving to the United States to study and practise, was to join the Black Cross Nurses organization.

Courtesy of CBC, photo taken by Shauna Townley
Annmarie Morais, an executive producer of The Porter, hopes the series will inspire viewers to expand their knowledge. “We hope people will look into the Black Cross nurses — and look into the porters and look into the events we have highlighted throughout the series — and discover these unsung chapters of Canadian history, of our history of progress and change.”

Started in 1920 in Philadelphia, Black women formed the Black Cross Nurses as part of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a political and cultural organization that Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey created to empower and unite members of the African diaspora.

Chapters of both the UNIA and the Black Cross Nurses arose in Canada, where members advocated for improvements to the lives of Black Canadians.

Black Cross nurses were not formally trained, because nursing schools would not accept them.

Despite those barriers, the nurses had a deep reservoir of knowledge. Many were midwives, caring for mothers and babies. They tended to Black veterans, visited the sick, bandaged wounds, and provided nutrition, hygiene, public and reproductive health education — as healers in their communities had for centuries.

Kept Black Canadians alive

In the period between the two world wars, “Black women became the forefront of health-care providers for Black Canadians,” says Sarah-Jane (Saje) Mathieu, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Only a handful of Black doctors were practising in Canada, and White physicians were both intimidating and unaffordable. The Black Cross nurses, who were largely Caribbean immigrants to Canada, had the trust of their communities as well as generations of home remedies to administer.

After church on Sundays, for example, Black Cross nurses taught other women about the importance of breast-feeding, how to keep the milk clean, and the presumed connection between coughing and tuberculosis, Mathieu says.

“These nurses became absolutely vital in keeping Black Canadians alive and afloat,” says Mathieu, who is also the author of North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955.

‘Black women became the forefront of health-care providers for Black Canadians.’

Much of Mathieu’s book focuses on the lives and the role of Black sleeping car porters working the Canadian and U.S. railways, history that inspired a new CBC and BET+ television series, The Porter.

The eight-episode show, which begins airing Monday, February 21, also features two Black Cross nurses as main characters married to porters. Their roles shine a spotlight on the nurses’ important and little-celebrated contribution to Canadian history.

Annmarie Morais, an executive producer, co-writer and co-creator of the show, learned about the nursing movement when combing through background research for the series, which she co-created and wrote.

‘Heartbeat’ of the community

“I really wanted to show the pride, the professionalism, the care that really was personified in Black Cross nurses across countries and nations,” she says.

The organization was a powerful force that filled gaps in the health-care system, serving people of colour — as Black, Indigenous and nurses of colour continue to do, Morais said.

“Some took St. John Ambulance training so they could bring more skills to their community,” she says. “They were the heartbeat of providing health services to the community. I just want to honour those who have long had their praises unsung in nursing and in health care, who do that daily, who have been that bridge for their communities and for care.”

The segregation of health care and of the nursing schools that gave rise to the Black Cross Nurses as an organization is not a praiseworthy part of Canadian history, points out Karen Flynn, who has also written and spoken about the organization.

That’s why she thinks Black Cross nurses are not better known, even among the Canadian nursing community.

Nursing schools rejected Blacks

“To think about the Black Cross nurses is to think about the exclusionary policies of Canadian nursing schools,” says Flynn, an associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s that Black women were admitted to nursing schools in Canada, Flynn points out. Before then, they had to go to the United States for nursing training — an alternative Moore rejected for his daughter.

“Again, if she were refused admittance on the grounds of her colour, it would force me to spend hard earned Canadian money in the States, whereas it would be unfair to her and establishing a terrible precedence of discrimination against coloured girls … what are we to do with our own girls who are desirous of taking this course?” Moore wondered in his letter.

Moore’s rejection, and that of Marisse Scott, another Black applicant refused entry to nursing school in her hometown of Owen Sound, Ont., eventually sparked enough media attention and pressure from churches and organizations like the Toronto Coloured Liberal Association that nursing schools desegregated.

St. Joseph’s Hospital’s nursing school in Guelph, Ont., admitted Scott in 1947, following the intervention of a priest. And in 1948, Ruth Bailey and Gwennyth Barton became the first Black nurses to graduate from a Canadian nursing school, earning their diplomas from the Grace Maternity School of Nursing in Halifax.

Even after Black students were admitted, however, they were often prevented from practising, says Mathieu.

“The reality is that Canadian universities up until the 1960s sometimes reluctantly allowed Black women to study nursing, but they did not give them the opportunity to have internships — time in the hospitals. They couldn’t get hired by physicians,” Mathieu says.

Pain of dreams denied

Canadians are good at celebratory history, such as highlighting Bailey and Barton’s accomplishments, adds Flynn, who is the author of Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora.

Despite Canada’s pride in opening its borders to ex-slaves and free people of colour, however, “it reinforced similar inequalities as those that persisted in the United States,” she says.

Flynn is pleased The Porter will provide a window into the experience of some of these Black women, although she believes acknowledging them has come late in Canada’s journey of self-discovery.

“We don’t want to talk about what it meant for those nurses to be denied. That is also part of the story,” says Flynn. “How hurt they must have been. I think about their pain.”

The systemic racism in nursing training created a brain drain for Canada, Mathieu points out, when Black women denied entry to Canadian schools went to New York, Nashville, Chicago or Washington, D.C., schools instead.

Moore moved to New York, where she worked in the food industry and had her own catering business. She died, aged 91, in 2010.

After she graduated, Scott also left Canada, working for the Ministry of Health in St. Lucia.

“As Canadians, I think White Canadians in particular and Canadians in general, we have to grapple with what all of this means,” Flynn says.

Morais hopes The Porter will inspire viewers to expand their knowledge.

“We hope people will look into the Black Cross nurses — and look into the porters and look into the events we have highlighted throughout the series — and discover these unsung chapters of Canadian history, of our history of progress and change.”

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist based in Wolfville, N.S.