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Shining a Light on Nursing History: The Black Angels' Story at the 2024 AANP National Conference

2024 National Conf Closing Keynote Speaker Maria Smilos

Join Maria Smilios and Virginia Allen as they share the inspiring legacy of nurses who transformed health care.

On Saturday, June 29, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners® Stephen A. Ferrara, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP, FAAN, will lead the annual membership meeting at the 2024 AANP National Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. This meeting will close with a keynote speech featuring Maria Smilios, author of the recent book, “The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses who Helped Cure Tuberculosis,” and Virginia Allen, one of the Black Angels who cared for tuberculosis patients years before there was any available cure. Smilios — whose book received the 2024 Christopher Award in literature and was named a finalist for the Gotham Book Prize — shares with AANP how she came to learn about the Black Angels, the continuing worldwide reach of tuberculosis and what she hopes to impart to the nurse practitioners (NPs) who hear her speak.

Meeting the Angels

The story of the Black Angels — which would consume Smilios for eight years as she wrote her book — revealed itself to her by accident. “I was editing a book on rare lung diseases, and I read a line that the cure for tuberculosis was discovered at Sea View hospital,” she says. Struck by this somehow obscure history and eager to learn more, she began to search out the scraps that she would eventually weave into a story about the Staten Island hospital called Sea View and the brave Black nurses who cared for the tuberculosis patients isolated there.

Smilios’ search eventually led her to Virginia Allen, the last living Black Angel. “We started meeting on Wednesday afternoons, and she talked about basically everything except the Black Angels,” Smilios recalls. “And then she invited me to her home. She lives in the restored nurses’ residences at Sea View hospital — the nurses’ home is in the middle of this abandoned hospital complex. I said, ‘This story is incredible,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you tell it?’”

Allen connected Smilios with family members of the original Black Angels, and through interviews with these individuals and others connected to the hospital, Smilios was able to write “The Black Angels” — a very human story of the nurses at Sea View which also deftly communicates a sense of place and time. Possibly the most outsized character in the book, however, is a silent one. The presence of tuberculosis is never far from the everyday life of the nurses, their families or the reader.

And still, most memorable about Black Angels are the stories of the nurses — Edna, Missouria and more — a deliberate choice on Smilios’ part. “I wanted to tell a very human story,” she relates. I really wanted to have these nurses come alive in a way where people saw them and felt them and were like, ‘I know this woman.’”

Community Over Despair

The nurses Smilios profiles in her book were young, Black women who had been trained as nurses but had barriers put in their way. Many of the Black Angels had left the Jim Crow south to make a better life as professionals in cities like Chicago and New York. What they encountered was more major challenges at Sea View, but they had their bonds, their shared profession and the backing of their community to help them slowly make positive changes for the workers and patients at the hospital.

They would need that community. The nurses were coming into a New York unrecognizable to the present day: slum conditions were the rule, not the exception, and families lived in cramped conditions, sometimes all sharing a single room. Proper ventilation and waste management were nonexistent, and The Great Depression left many without stable work, or work at all. Add in the tuberculosis epidemic, and life at that time sounds almost impossibly difficult. Fortunately, the Black Angels — through the bonds of community, their dedication to the nursing profession and by relying on one another — were able to mitigate the worst of those years, all while serving others.

“Their professional status allowed them to work together in ways that people who were nonprofessional workers or considered nonprofessional workers couldn’t,” says Smilios. “It was really impressive that they used that education — they used that community.” When the nurses were surprised one day to find placards in their own dining room announcing it was now reserved for whites only, they organized and went to the press at the risk of being reprimanded or demoted. But, as Smilios points out, “The thing with the Sea View nurses is they didn’t have job protection, but they knew that the hospital was so desperate for nurses that they really wouldn’t get fired.”

The hospitals were indeed desperate. Tuberculosis was a mystery that ravaged patients, as bed rest, fresh air and a variety of attempted cures were failing to curb the deadly path of the disease. Treatments to try and stop the spread of tuberculosis included surgeries so drastic and debilitating they rivaled the destruction of tuberculosis in pure bodily disruption. “I think the most shocking thing for me, and I say it again and’s a miracle that human beings survived those surgeries,” recalls Smilios.

A Shared Commitment to Service

Through her research into tuberculosis, Smilios realized how important it was to make a difference in promoting health equity, and now works with organizations like EndTB and Partners in Health. Through her writing, Smilios is also helping to frame how much of an impact tuberculosis still has in the world. “Most people don’t even know that tuberculosis is as deadly as it is,” she relates. “Worldwide, 10 million people get sick and 1.6 million die in countries like Sierra Leon, India and Peru. They’re dying, not because it’s incurable — that’s the crazy part [...] there’s drugs out there that can help people — they’re just not accessible, they’re not affordable and so people continue to die.”

The brave work of women like Virginia Allen in curbing the death toll will be especially resonant to the NPs in the audience for Smilios’ keynote speech. When asked what she most wanted to impart to the NPs at the 2024 AANP National Conference, Smilios says: “The past always informs the present, and when you read these stories, ultimately this is a triumphant story — it’s about people, like all the people in the audience who are willing to take care of people like me, every day. In moments of crisis, they rise to an occasion, and in this case, these women took care of people and they happened to become part of a galvanizing moment in history because they were the most qualified people to be on those front lines.”

About the lessons of history and how they relate to today’s front-line workers, Smilios states: “We are relying on overworked nurses to keep together a frayed and fraying health care system, and I hope people take that message away — that we need to look at the past. We need to look at issues of systemic racism, institutional racism, how patients are treated, this idea of who lives and who dies based on the zip code in which they live — who gets health care and why. And we need to ask: ‘What if we lived in a world where everybody got health care? Why can’t we work towards that?’ If COVID-19 taught us something, it was that we can work democratically and globally in solving health issues.”

Regarding the importance of telling the stories of women health care providers, Smilios concludes: “What I hope people take away is that these stories are really wonderful, they are inspiring and we need more stories about women in science. I learned this kind of fun fact during Women’s History Month. If you take 3800 years of history, 0.5 % of those are stories about women’s history — that’s only 17 years out of 3800. I encourage people to go out and tell their stories, to go out and hear these stories and really think about why it’s important to have them.”

Hear Maria Smilios and Virigina Allen at the 2024 AANP National Conference

Virginia Allen and Maria Smilios will both appear at the 2024 AANP National Conference as the closing keynote speakers. The opportunity to hear from Smilios and Allen is just one of the many advantages of attending the 2024 AANP National Conference in person, along with unparalleled opportunities to build your professional network, challenge your mind and explore Nashville, Tennessee, alongside your fellow NPs. Do not miss this opportunity to experience the largest NP event of the year — register to attend in Nashville today!

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