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School of Nursing


ver the years, Emory’s nursing deans have shared a determination to make the school and its graduates more fully reflect the spectrum of American society—and impatience with any obstacles in the way. As the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing pushes forward with an ambitious strategic plan that links the domestic and global nursing shortage with a need to further diversify the face of nursing, it is inspiring, says Dean Marla Salmon, to look back on the bravery and determination of those earlier leaders, students, and supporters who opened the diversity doors at Emory University. Today’s school is building on a strong legacy set forth by former nursing dean Dr. Ada Fort, who boldly challenged Georgia’s segregation laws in the early 1960s based on the principle: “There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.”
     At the middle of the 20th century, Emory, like virtually all Southern universities, was a monotony of white skin, save for an occasional Asian or Asian American student. But the country was changing, with Georgia representing both sides of the racial coin. It was home to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while its governor and legislature threatened to close down the public school system rather than comply with the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling ordering public schools to integrate. Emory faculty were among the loudest voices raised in favor of integration. In 1961, Georgia gave in, removing all laws requiring racial segregation of public education. Within days, the arrival of two black students on the University of Georgia (UGA) campus set off riots.
     There was a cruel catch in the new law. While public schools like UGA were now required to admit qualified black students, private schools like Emory were prohibited from doing so. Breaking the law meant losing the tax-exempt status that private schools needed to operate. Everyone knew that Emory was going to fight that law. The question, given the tensions and politics of the era, was when? Fort argued for now.

A Quiet Revolution

In 1962, she quietly began a search for two African American women with the nursing background that would enable them to succeed in the school’s vigorous master’s degree program—the first master of nursing program in the Southeast, then 8 years old—and the strength to withstand any heat they might encounter. To find such bright, brave women, Fort turned to Dorothy Tilly, who was working to help Martin Luther King gain support in the white community while ignoring burning crosses in her own front yard.
     “Mrs. Tilly asked me to lunch,” recalls Verdelle Bellamy, 63MN, “and told me Emory’s nursing school was ready to enroll African Americans.” Bellamy would be a pioneer, Tilly pointed out, and would get a great graduate education in her field of maternal and child health.
       When the flabbergasted Bellamy asked why her, Tilly only smiled. “Verdelle,” she said, “we know more about you and your family than you probably know yourself!”
     When Tilly pulled the Emory application out of her case that day, Bellamy’s life was set to go in a different direction, at least geographically. She, like Allie Saxon, 63MN, who would join her in integrating Emory’s nursing school, had received her diploma degree from Grady Memorial Hospital’s School of Nursing. Bellamy remained to work in the segregated black hospital at Grady. Later, Bellamy and Saxon went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the nearest place where a black person in Atlanta could get a bachelor’s degree in nursing and become a registered nurse.
     By 1962, Bellamy was on the faculty of the Grady nursing program. Saxon, who taught at Carver High School, brought vocational nursing students to Grady for clinical experience. The two friends assumed they would have to head north to advance their nursing credentials, and Bellamy had been accepted at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, for that fall.
     “I’ve never been a person to shy away from opportunities or obligations,” says Bellamy. “I thought Emory was trying to change attitudes. So I talked it over with my husband, and I agreed to accept the challenge.” So did Saxon.
     Their applications arrived at the nursing school, were reviewed, and added to the stack sent to the central university for admission. Soon thereafter, Henry Bowden, the supportive but ever-politic chair of Emory’s Board of Trustees, came to Fort’s office in the nursing school and politely made the case for patience. Fort stuck to her mantra: no wrong time for the right thing. Virginia Proctor, a nursing school administrator at the time, believes having already admitted two students was an important factor in the board’s decision to push ahead then, rather than later.
     Bowden and Ben Johnson Jr., dean of the School of Law (and father of Emory’s current board chair), lost the first round of Emory’s case in a lower court and immediately appealed. As the legal battle dragged on, Fort grew more impatient. If the students entered before the law was overturned, Emory would suffer financially. If they didn’t begin by fall, they would be out of sequence in the intense curriculum. Fort called Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, explaining she had two students who needed science courses in order not to miss any time toward the goal they were trying to reach. The following Monday, in fall 1962, Bellamy and Saxon were enrolled in a swiftly stitched-together class schedule in chemistry and biology at Clark Atlanta University.
     In September, Bowden and Johnson won Emory’s case in the Georgia Supreme Court. Most of the divisions at Emory had already begun classes, but the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences arranged for a black male student to enroll part-time in a special program. Emory was officially integrated.
     The following January, Bellamy and Saxon arrived at the dilapidated Army barracks that housed Emory’s nursing school. As they reached out their hands, the door swung open from inside. Waiting to greet them were Fort and the entire nursing school faculty and student body.

     It was the first time any of them, black or white, had classmates of the opposite color. All had seen horrific pictures on television—fire hoses mowing down protesters, family pictures of the little girls who died in an Alabama church bombing, and the faces of their grieving parents. Some of them doubtless knew how their own families felt about the changes sweeping the nation.
     “I just wasn’t worried,” recalls Saxon. “I knew about all the terrible things that Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter were going through at the University of Georgia, of course, but somehow I had more confidence in the people at Emory.”
     “We were completely welcomed,” Bellamy says. “We experienced nothing bad. The biggest challenge that Allie and I faced as graduate students in nursing at Emory was the rigors of the program. But the students felt we were all in it together, and we often studied together.”
     Fort had chosen well. Both Bellamy and Saxon were serious, highly organized students who mixed easily with their classmates. In December 1963, they became the first African American students to receive an Emory degree.
     After graduation, Bellamy joined the Veterans Affairs medical system, retiring at the rank of associate chief of geriatrics in the VA’s long-term care facility. Saxon joined the faculty at Winston-Salem State College in North Carolina, which had a training agreement with Grady, then moved to the US Department of Health and Human Services in Atlanta. Her last position before retiring was as a contractor representative for Medicare.
     Both women have often been honored at Emory, but what pleases them most is the knowledge that the door they opened at Emory—and in the places where they have worked—has opened wider for other students.
     Bellamy and Saxon may have made integration look easy, but the outside world was far from that. Retired nursing professor Rose Dilday remembers when one of the early black graduate students who followed those first pioneers phoned her in tears. Dilday had placed the student, one of her best, in a local mental health facility for a clinical rotation, and the secretaries refused to let her use the restroom. Dilday stepped in, as the faculty always did. The harassed student went on to become director of the county’s mental health program.
     “Standing in the shadow of integration took a lot of energy,” recalls Virginia Proctor. That’s why she was astonished when shortly after the school was integrated that Fort announced in a faculty meeting, “We in America are the most well cared for medically anywhere in the world, with the most hospitals, most doctors, most nurses. This places upon us a responsibility to do something about health around the world.”
     “My first thought was not yet, Ada, not yet, we haven’t yet dusted ourselves off from what we have just been though,” says Proctor. “But then I realized our own students were saying the same thing.” Many university student abroad programs sent students to European capitals; the nursing school then as now more often sent its students to the poorest nations of the world. It was part of a lasting goal to promote global diversity and awareness among nursing students, faculty, and professionals.
     And it worked. The private, nonprofit International Nursing Services Association that grew out of Fort’s pronouncement later expanded into Global Health Action (GHA), which has trained more than 6,000 nurses, home health workers, and other health professionals in 87 countries. (Coincidentally, GHA is led by Robin Davis, a 1976 graduate of the master’s program.) “I hope somewhere Dean Fort is watching the success of the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing today,” adds Salmon, who established the center in 2001 to address global issues in health
care and the nursing workforce.

Staying the Course

People always think I’m the first African American faculty member in the school,” laughs Dr. Maggie Gilead, 73MN, 81PhD, “but actually I’m just the one who stayed.” When Gilead joined the faculty as an instructor in 1974, Mackie Norris, who was the first, had taught for a little over a year before following her husband to another city.
     Gilead was working at Grady when she enrolled in the school’s new mental health clinical nurse specialty program in 1972. “It was a little perplexing to be at Emory in the 1970s,” remembers Gilead. “Race wasn’t an issue for me, especially since I was in that protected group of Rose Dilday’s students. But I was one of only two students who were not from the South, and I sometimes felt discriminated against by both blacks and whites who saw me as a Yankee.” Gilead took an educational leave to attend Emory’s Institute of Liberal Arts to study psychology and urban studies and in 1981 became one of the first teachers on the nursing faculty to hold a doctorate. Now an associate professor in the Department of Adult and Elder Health, she is a leader in improving mental health services at the local and state level. Her joint appointment in Emory’s Department of African American Studies also reflects the school’s increasing involvement with the university that has, she believes, helped erase an earlier sense of isolation.
     Mary Gullatte, 81MN, helped diversify the staff at Emory University Hospital. When she joined the hospital in 1978, she was one of five African American nurses. Historically, most African American women were guided to pursue training as licensed practical nurses. Some Emory patients looked first at Gullatte’s skin color and asked about her credentials. Most responded as quickly to her professionalism as to her RN status, but when a recalcitrant patient crossed the line, the oncologists were on the spot as Gullatte’s champion, ready to discharge the patient before allowing abuse of a nurse.
     Exuding a conviction that she could excel in whatever she set her mind to, Gullatte worked and raised a family while completing her master’s at the nursing school and then the advanced practice nurse practitioner program. “I marvel at the things the school had to offer and the support I received,” says Gullatte, “and I’m grateful for the pioneers like Verdelle Bellamy and Allie Saxon, who paved the way.”
     Gullatte continues the work they began. Now director of nursing for patient oncology and transplant services for Emory Hospitals and the Winship Cancer Institute, she was named 2004 Georgia Nurse of the Year. She is studying for her doctorate and remains one of the school’s most vocal alumni, encouraging young people of all races and backgrounds to realize their dreams and the opportunities open to them in nursing.

A New Generation

LaKeysha Daniels grew up wanting to be a doctor. But when she had the opportunity to see what nurses actually did, that was the end of pre-med and the beginning of her nursing studies at Georgia Southern University. Forty years after Bellamy and Saxon’s groundbreaking arrival at Emory, Daniels no longer thought of herself as a pioneer when she began graduate work in Emory’s nurse-midwifery program, so she was shocked to find herself one of only three minority students in class.
     “I was furious,” Daniels says, “but then I started to see that it wasn’t about people not wanting to move forward. The lack of minority student enrollment is the result of many potential African American students not knowing what Emory has to offer and what steps to take to further their nursing career. I have had a tremendously positive and welcoming experience as a graduate student in the School of Nursing. Realizing the torch was being passed to me from other pioneering nurses, I asked Dean Salmon if we could form a graduate student organization to stay in touch with alumni and encourage future minority graduate students to embrace the Emory experience. She was very excited and connected me to the right people. It’s a work in progress, but we’re reaching out in the right direction.”

     Donte Flanagan is a junior in the school who plans to continue in the school’s graduate emergency nurse practitioner program, specializing in pediatrics. He knows it’s even harder to draw in students who look like him. The nursing school graduated its first male undergraduate in 1968, and its first black male undergraduate in 1972. Today, men make up 7% of undergraduate nursing students and 5% of graduate students.
     “Bright men in the African American community are encouraged to enter high-status fields like medicine or law,” Flanagan says, speaking from experience. “There is still stigma associated with helping, serving professions. People don’t realize the respect nurses have, the increasingly high salaries and opportunities for advancement, until they are actually out in the world.” He believes that’s why many of his classmates have previous degrees and have chosen nursing as their second career.
     As a mentor in his Tennessee hometown, Flanagan tries to tell young people, especially young black men, that nursing is a “critical-thinking profession,” allowing practitioners to combine the science of medicine with the compassion that is in all humans. He also tells them that, with the nursing shortage and the broadening roles nurses play in health care, willing students of any economic background can find the resources to become nurses.
     “We need to reach younger students, including in the inner city,” he says. “Once they understand what nursing really is, then
we will see more men, black and white, in the profession.”
     “It was great to be first,” says Bellamy, “but if you walk through a door and no one follows you, then it’s no longer worthwhile. It’s not an honor anymore.” She’s encouraged by what she sees happening at Emory and in the nursing school. The university has the highest enrollment of black students in the country among the nation’s 25 leading universities and about twice the national average of black faculty. It is becoming increasingly diverse internationally.
The nursing school’s enrollment reflects the United States’ hyphenated population—19% and 23% African American in the undergraduate and graduate programs, respectively; 5% and 6%, Asian American/Pacific Islander; and 2% Latin American in both programs. Other minorities make up 7% and 5%.
     But admitting minorities is one thing, making sure they graduate is another. Five years ago, noticing African American students were more likely to drop out, Salmon instigated a pre-admissions test for all students to pinpoint possible gaps in undergraduate preparation—and a summer program where students could fill those gaps before joining better-prepared classmates in the fall. Today, more than 90% of undergraduate nursing students graduate—and the drop-out rate is no longer related to color.
     Like early heroines in the nursing school, Salmon and her faculty still want to change the world—and they are still in a hurry. The portrait of Ada Fort hangs in the board room a few doors down from the dean’s office. Her gaze seems to move around the room, watching while faculty discuss the present and plan for the school’s next 100 years.
     “Some days I go in there and she’s smiling,” says Salmon. “Other days I go in and her eyebrow is lifted, she’s looking right at me, and she’s saying ‘now, now, now.’ ”

Sylvia Wrobel recently retired as associate vice president for health sciences communications after 22 years at Emory University.

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