I first published this blog post in February of 2021. Today, I received an email from a reader who wrote the following message and I was so moved by how she honors Charity Collins, I knew I had to repost this year on the first day of Black History Month 2023.
Thank you for highlighting the work of Charity Collins. Her image graces the entrance to my school health office!
Can you name the first Black school nurse? Her name is Charity Collins and in 1911 she served the students and families of Atlanta. Nurse Collins made quite a mark on her school community, but her name, her work, and her legacy are buried in the annals of the history of school nursing. Charity Collins’s innovative contributions to school nursing during its inception seem to be relegated to footnotes. This glaring error is a jarring reminder of the racist practices that plague our profession. A 2013 article in Minority Nurse entitled Making History: Black Nightingales gives context to this history:
The history of black women in the nursing profession is a story of women of color fighting to overcome racial, social and economic injustice. In their efforts to obtain appropriate and professional health care education, these women also sought to acquire professional acceptance from their white counterparts.
This is the article I read where I first learned of the work Charity Collins:
Charity Collins, the first African-American school nurse, was appointed in 1911 for the city of Atlanta, where she also established prenatal clinics and an infant welfare center, bringing services to families who otherwise would not have received them under segregation. – retrieved from NYT Now Taking the Stage in the Pandemic: The School Nurse
I wanted to find out more about this amazing school nurse and sadly found very few details.
Charity Collins, the first African American school nurse, was appointed in 1911 as the school nurse for the city of Atlanta. She established an infant welfare center, oral hygiene programs for students, prenatal clinics for African American women, and programs of health education (Thorns, 1929; Carnegie, 1986). Because of segregation, women of color did not have access to care for themselves and their families, especially in the South. As products of their time, even nurses were sometimes blind to injustice, and it often fell to nurses like Charity Collins to establish needed services. – (Hawkins et al 1994)
As Black History Month comes to a close, I am lifting up Charity Collins, the school nurse trailblazer who brought health and healing to her underserved, segregated school community. My sincere apologies for not knowing her name, her work, or her legacy until I stumbled upon a reference to the first African American school nurse in a New York Times article. I am owning my mistake and making a commitment to continue to learn and unlearn as I navigate the waters of being anti-racist. Let’s move into a more diverse, inclusive, future of nursing that dismantles White Supremacy and embraces equity.
Hawkins, J.W., Hayes, E.R. and Corliss, C.P. (1994), School Nursing in America—1902‐1994: A Return to Public Health Nursing. Public Health Nursing, 11: 416-425. https://doi-org.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/10.1111/j.1525-1446.1994.tb00208.x