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Jeannette Washington: Pittsburgh’s First Black Public Health Nurse, by Adam Lee Cilli

The sight of Jeannette Washington emerging from some tenement in Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District was common.  She had been a fixture in the Hill for half a century, tirelessly working to improve health in the Black community, prevent unnecessary deaths from curable illnesses, and provide comfort to the dying.  Washington’s career, which spanned from the beginning of World War I to the close of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrates the larger struggle of Blacks in the Western world to overcome race-based educational and occupational barriers and gain access to the professions.  Coinciding with a period of rapid Black urbanization in the U.S. known as the Great Migration, it also reveals the workings of structural inequity in inner-city healthcare and the deadly connection between racial discrimination and health outcomes.    

Washington was born in Pittsburgh on August 9, 1894.  She resolved at an early age to become a nurse, even after her mother told her that “nursing’s not for colored folks,” alluding to longstanding color barriers across all professions.[1]  Finding that no nursing school in Pittsburgh would admit Black applicants, Washington enrolled in Fredrick Douglas Memorial Hospital and Training School in Philadelphia.[2]  Yet when she graduated in 1915 and returned to Pittsburgh as a registered nurse, she learned that local hospitals refused to hire nonwhite applicants.  Washington struggled for the next several years to make ends meet. 

This period of her life overlapped with the opening phase of the Great Migration.  From 1915 to 1930, as many as 1.5 million African Americans migrated from rural spaces in the American South to northern industrial centres like Pittsburgh.  This rapid population surge in northern Black communities, combined with longstanding racial inequities in healthcare, contributed to an astonishing spike in Black infant mortality rates across the urban North.  African American adults, too, suffered disproportionately from preventable illnesses.  In this difficult setting, Washington formed a partnership with a local racial-advancement organization called the Urban League of Pittsburgh (ULP). 

Among its other projects, the ULP made addressing the health crisis a top priority.  Washington served on its health committee, which established plans to sponsor a series of community events to educate Black families about preventative care, screen infants, and provide physical examinations for adults.  Yet drawing migrants to these events, and persuading them to allow a medical professional to handle their babies, required winning their trust—a process that could be made easier if there was an African American nurse available.  Based on this argument, in 1922 the ULP convinced the Public Health Nursing Association of Pittsburgh to hire Washington.[3]  

Washington had thus broken a major color barrier in the medical field.  It is likely that she was Pittsburgh’s first Black nurse, and she certainly was the first Black woman to work in the Public Health Department.  In any case, Washington rooted her career in service to the community.  She continued her partnership with the ULP for many years and played a crucial role in the success of its health campaigns. 

The ULP made a special effort to educate migrant women on the importance of prenatal care and obstetrical services.  In 1921, for instance, it sponsored three baby shows that featured “exhibits of all kinds,” according to a ULP report.  League staff showed movies, distributed informational literature, and sponsored guest lectures by Black and white health professionals, “all of which was for the purpose of directing the attention of the colored mothers of Pittsburgh to better care of their children.”  Eager to show off their babies, learn ways to keep them alive and healthy, and possibly win one of the available prizes (such as strollers and high chairs), over a thousand mothers and friends attended, and they brought 368 babies, who received health screenings and were registered with health centers across the city.  Washington administered these screenings alongside Black physician Dr. Marie Kinner.[4]

Ultimately, during the 1920s, these initiatives helped alleviate the health crisis in the Black community.  Black mortality rates declined every year from 1918 to 1923, despite the influx of migrants into neighborhoods with fixed housing capacities.  Although health improved citywide, between 1920 and 1925 infant mortality decreased twice as rapidly for Blacks as they did for whites.[5]

Washington continued advocating for community health for the remainder of her career.  In 1934, the Pittsburgh Courier identified her as a key figure in a major public health survey in Black Pittsburgh.  Through this endeavor, and working with other medical professionals, she oversaw physical examinations for over eight thousand people.[6]

Year after year, decade after decade, Washington strode the streets of the Hill in her white uniform visiting sick patients, calming worried parents, and ushering babies into the world.  She died on July 24, 1984, after a lifetime of caring for the poor and disadvantaged.  Not long after, Phil Musick, a syndicated columnist for the Pittsburgh Press, wrote a piece that celebrated her life and indicated her importance to the community she served so long.  “Ask around the Hill District.  Mention her name.  Good women smile; good men take off their hats.  In the Hill, they owed Jeannette Washington.  For many, the debt was their lives.”[7]      


Image: Better Baby Show, ca. 1930 

Jeannette Washington, Pittsburgh’s first Black public health nurse, is standing in the bottom right corner.

Source: Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection, Archives Service Center. 8111.539B01.UL


Adam Lee Cilli is assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, Bradford.  His first book, Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 (University of Georgia Press, 2021), illuminates the social justice efforts of journalists, scholars, social workers, medical experts, lawyers, and other professionals who navigated the fraught racial landscape of the urban North during the first phase of the Great Migration.  Professor Cilli has also published articles in the Journal of Women’s HistoryJournal of Urban History, and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.   This research, and its emphasis on social justice, informs his teaching, from survey level courses in U.S. history to specialized seminars examining the Great Migration. 


 

[1] Quoted in Phil Musick, “Nurse Jeannette Washington, heroine from the Hill,” The Pittsburgh Press, 3 August 1984.

[2] Arthur J. Edmunds, Daybreakers: The Story of the Urban League of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh: Urban League of Pittsburgh, 1983), 59.  Edmunds states that Washington earned her degree from the Mercy-Douglass Hospital, but records available on Ancestry.com indicate that Washington earned her degree from The Fredrick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School.  Sometime after Washington graduated, this institution merged with Mercy Hospital to become the Mercy-Douglass Hospital. 

[3] Edmunds, Daybreakers, 59-61.

[4] ULP Press Release, 6 July 1921, box 6, folder 244, Urban League Records (UL), Archives Service Center (ASC), Pittsburgh (Pgh.); Carolyn Leonard Carson, “And the Results Show Promise…Physicians, Childbirth, and Southern Black Migrant Women, 1916-1930: Pittsburgh as a Case Study,” in Joe Trotter and Eric Ledell Smith, editors, African Americans in Pennsylvania, Shifting Historical Perspectives (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 341-342; “Urban League of Pittsburgh Holds Better Baby Contest,”  Pittsburgh Courier, 14 June 1924.

[5] By 1925, Black infant mortality declined to 132 deaths per 1,000 births.  Despite these gains, it remained disproportionately high into the thirties.  For instance, in 1934 the Black infant mortality rate was 77.8, compared to 51.5 for whites.  See Carson, “Results Show Promise,” 335-342 and 354; ULP Annual Report, 1925, box 6, folder 246, UL, ASC, Pgh. 

[6] “Interest Keen in Urban League’s Annual Meet,” Page One, Pittsburgh Courier, 27 January 1934.

Spending her entire career as a public health nurse, Washington never made much money.  Census records indicate that she lived as a border in other people’s houses throughout her thirties, though later in her life she did manage to buy her own home.  The demands of her career also left little room for social activities or romance.  Washington remained single throughout her life, and although she oversaw countless births, she never had a child of her own

See the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Census, Pittsburgh, Enumeration District 0072.  These records can be accessed through Ancestry.com.  Washington also served in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II.  See World War II Cadet Nursing Corps Card Files, 1942-1948.  Accessed through Ancestry.com. 

[7] Quoted in Musick, “Nurse Jeannette Washington,” The Pittsburgh Press

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