In 1954, the public school system of Mobile, Alabama, launched its first training program for black nursing students. It was a one-year Licensed Practical Nurse Program (LPN). Before then, an African American who wanted to study nursing had to travel to places like Selma, Montgomery, and Tuskegee. Few had the means or the ability to do so, and those who did were denied admitting privileges at all but one of Mobile’s hospitals.1 At the time, Mobile’s population was around 35 percent black. Black healthcare workers had to face many daunting challenges, including race-based health disparities, hostility from white colleagues and patients, the racial wage gap, lack of recognition, and unequal access to professional and educational resources. Their dedication and sacrifice over many years are an important, yet too often overlooked part of the story of the civil rights movement. Black nurses, in particular, were first to cross the color line in health care. Mobile’s new black nursing graduates started attending to patients in the segregated hospital wards a full decade before the first black physicians gained admitting privileges.2
On June 20, 2019, I spoke with Ruth Taylor Ballard, an eighty-four-year-old retired nurse who was one of nineteen black women in the Class of 1955, the first graduates of the Mobile County Public School System’s LPN program. After graduation, Ballard went on to earn her Registered Nurse (RN) certification while working as a nurse in Mobile for over 40 years.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Becoming a Nurse
Daryn: Please describe the program for black nursing students that was established in Mobile.
Ruth: I honestly cannot recall how I heard about it. However, I always wanted to be a nurse. There were nursing programs in the Mobile area [but they were] not open to blacks at the time. The closest program for LPN’s was in Selma, Alabama, and my parents were not able to send me to Selma. So when I learned about the program in Mobile, I did apply, and I was accepted in the first class.
Daryn: You mentioned your parents. Were you living at home?
Ruth: Yes, I was living at home with my parents.
Daryn: Did your parents approve of this program for you?
Ruth: My parents was very up on education, even though [neither] my father nor my mother was high school graduates. It was one thing they said, that all of us — and it was seven of us — would graduate from high school. They wanted us to go to college.
Daryn: Was this program for high school students only? Or was it for anybody who wanted to apply?
Ruth: It had to be open to the general public because there were people who was married, had children. There were some that was younger than I. I graduated [high school] in 1953 and I was working to save money to go to college.
Balancing Work, School and Family
Daryn: What was your job when you applied to the nursing program?
Ruth: I was working as a waitress at International Paper Company, in the cafeteria, and so I was saving money. The school started at Williamson High School, in Maysville.3 I had an aunt and an uncle who lived in the area, so with transportation being a problem, my parents allowed me to move in with [them]. They lived within walking distance of Williamson, so I walked to and from school.
Daryn: Did you continue to work while you were in school?
Ruth: No, I was only concentrating on my studies.
Daryn: Was that typical of the other students as well?
Ruth: That was typical of the other students. However, those that were older had families–they had a husband, kids, [and had to] cook, clean, wash. I remember one of the ladies in the class, even though she was married [and] had other children, she was keeping up with everything in the class, but she was not allowed to march [at graduation] with our class because she was pregnant at the time.
Daryn: Who were your instructors?
Ruth: We had one instructor, Mrs. Caroline Tyler.
Daryn: What was the curriculum like?
Ruth: You had to maintain an 80 percentile, a 79 would not do. You had to have that 80 percent.
Daryn: Were they strict about things like appearance and personal behavior outside of school?
Ruth: Oh, yes! You could not be loud. When you came to school, your shoes had to be white. Your uniform, we had caps that we wore, everything had to be clean, decent and in order. Even your hair, it could not be touching your collar. I mean, everything had to be up to par.
Daryn: What was the pay like when you got your first job at Providence Hospital?
Ruth: If I remember correctly, something like seventy-five dollars every two weeks. Very little.4
Daryn: You mentioned that you got married and had children–did you continue your nursing career after that?
Ruth: That was a challenge, but if you’re determined to do something, you can do it. Because when I went to Bishop,5 I had three children — the two older ones was in college, [the] youngest one was in high school — and my mother was ill, my father was ill and I was working full time. So — my family, we worked out a schedule that when I was in school and working, they took care of them, and when I got home — because I lived across the street from my parents — I cooked and made sure that my children and husband was taken care of. Then I took care of my parents until I had to get up and go to school in the morning. That’s the way our family did.
Daryn: Can you talk about your experience interacting with patients and other staff when you were one of the few black nurses practicing? Did you find acceptance?
Ruth: There was acceptance because the black nurses took care of the black patients. The only time that black nurses took care of white patients was if someone called in, and they would pull what they call “the best nurse” to go take care of whatever needed to be done. And then you got the worst patients, the sickest patients, the ones that required the most work. And most of the time they never would call you by your name — they would walk up to you, “do this, do the other” ––and there was no respect for black nurses. And they expected you to do the bulk of the work.
Daryn: But the attitude you got from black patients was pretty positive?
Ruth: My approach to them was: my name is Ruth Ballard. I didn’t care whether they called me Mrs. Ballard, nurse, whatever. If they wanted to call me Ruth, I was fine with it. I knew who I was. I am there to give you the best care I possibly can. Before I did anything to them, I would address them as mister or missus. I would tell them my name and then I would let them know what I am here to do for them. And I found that when you went in with that approach, the patient accepted you. I was there to do a service. I would tell the patient this pill is for this, that and the other. You know, Mrs. Tyler, she always told us hearing is the last thing that [leaves] a person. Even if a person was lying there comatose, I talked to that patient while I was bathing them or doing whatever to them, telling them what I was going to do for them as I did it.
Unlike many others from the Class of 1955, Ballard remained in nursing for her entire working life, retiring in 2000. After leaving Providence Hospital, she held nursing jobs at Brookley Airforce Base hospital in Mobile, the Veterans Affairs hospital in Gulfport, Mississippi, and a chemical plant in Axis, Alabama. Finally, as a newly certified registered nurse (RN) in the 1980s, she began working as a psychiatric nurse at Searcy Hospital in Mount Vernon, Alabama. “That was really when I found my niche,” she says.
Although not everyone in the community remembers Ballard’s time as a nurse, she is well-known and commands great respect. On August 23, 2019, the residents of Mobile’s Africatown participated in a nationwide bell-ringing ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves to arrive in the British colonies in America. At 2:00 pm, the school bell at Mobile County Training School6 was rung for four minutes to honor the community’s slave ancestors in the presence of their living descendants. One alumnus of the school, a tall, dark-skinned woman with closely-cropped white hair, was chosen to help release 110 butterflies, representing the number of slaves who were illegally shipped to Mobile on the Clotilda.7 That woman was Ruth Ballard, R.N.
- St. Martin de Porres, a Catholic maternity hospital for blacks, opened in 1942. It had a biracial staff and advisory board. Return to text.
- The Hill-Burton Act of 1946 required hospitals receiving federal grants and loans for new construction or renovation to provide patient services “without discrimination on account of race, creed, or color.” However, the law did not require hospitals to integrate their medical staff. Also, hospitals could continue to operate on a segregated basis as long as there were separate but equal facilities for black patients in the community. See Thomas J. Ward, Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2003), 176–177. In Mobile, admitting privileges for physicians were restricted to members of the Medical Society of Mobile County (MSOMC), a whites-only organization. It was not until 1964 that the MSOMC permitted three black physicians to join: Dr. Albert Thomas, Dr. James P. Dixon, and Dr. Escous B. Goode. Shawn A. Bivens, Mobile, Alabama’s People of Color: A Tricentennial History, 1702-2002 Volume One (Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2004): 232. Return to text.
- A working-class neighborhood in Mobile. Return to text.
- Although wage data for Mobile is not available, Ballard’s weekly wage of $37.50 (equivalent to $721 in 2019) is only fifty cents less than what the average practical nurse in a non-government hospital reported making in Memphis, Tennessee, a demographically similar Southern city. The overall wage gap between blacks and whites is very well established, but it is not necessarily reflected in the historical data for every profession or part of the country. For her part, Ballard said that none of the white nurses would share what they were making with her, but that “you knew” they were making more. “Earnings and Supplementary Benefits in Hospitals, Memphis, Tennessee, December 1956,” Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, no. 1210–12 (August 1957): 4, https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/title/4567/item/495699. Return to text.
- Bishop State Community College in Mobile, where Ballard continued her nursing education and received her certification as a registered nurse in the early 1980s. Return to text.
- Founded as a public high school for African Americans in 1880, Mobile County Training School is now a public middle school. Return to text.
- The Clotilda is the last known slave ship to smuggle slaves into the United States in either 1859 or 1860, more than 50 years after importing slaves had been banned. The bell-ringing ceremony was especially poignant because the wreckage of the Clotilda had just been discovered in May by a state-sponsored maritime archaeological expedition. Return to text.