Understanding Her Position and Place: An African American Nurse at the Stewart Indian School, 1908-1917
In September 1908, Allie Helena Barnett left her family in Atchison, Kansas, and traveled to Carson City, Nevada, where she had accepted a job as a nurse at the Stewart Indian School. Barnett, an African American woman, had graduated from nursing school at Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1906. At the Stewart Indian School, she found secure employment taking care of Native American children and teaching them about health and hygiene. Barnett excelled in her position and received glowing evaluations from her supervisors during the nine years she worked at the school. However, though Barnett was widely praised for her talents, school officials could not reconcile Barnett’s abilities with her race. After all, boarding schools like Stewart were founded on the white supremacist idea that Native Americans would become extinct if they did not reject their supposedly inferior cultures and accept that of white Americans. Where and how did Allie Barnett fit into this world view? While Stewart officials attempted to figure this out, Barnett’s success challenged one of the major tenets of the Native American boarding school system.
When Barnett began working at the Stewart Indian School, white men and women comprised the majority of employees at Indian boarding schools. They educated Indigenous children, oversaw efforts to ‘civilize’ and assimilate them into white society, and served as their role models. As the Superintendent of Indian Schools wrote in 1902, “Association with white peoples is of the utmost importance to the Indian child, for only by this contact can he be taught to think and reason as does the Anglo-Saxon.”1 Boarding school curriculum further emphasized this point. A 1901 directive instructed teachers to “create a spirit of love and brotherhood in the minds of the children toward the white people” in their lessons, and to emphasize the “… innumerable instances of heroic sacrifices and acts of friendship on the part of white settlers and missionaries” toward Native populations.2
At the same time, some boarding school officials confronted unexpected challenges to white supremacy on their campuses. Native students excelled in their studies, and challenged the generally low expectations of teachers and school administrators. Some became activists upon their graduation, determined to abolish or improve boarding schools, or to transform them into institutions designed to support and uplift Indigenous communities. Beginning in the early 1900s, some boarding schools began hiring Native Americans, many of whom had graduated from such schools, as well as a small number of African Americans. At the Stewart School, which opened its doors in 1890 and initially enrolled students from the Washoe, Western Shoshone, and Northern Paiute nations, Allie Barnett was among the first African Americans employed at the school.
Much of what is known about Barnett’s time at Stewart comes from surviving performance evaluations, known as “efficiency reports,” from her federal personnel file. She was evaluated upon the medical care she provided students, her work with the school physician, and her efforts to teach Stewart pupils about health and hygiene. Barnett’s supervisors further assessed her efficiency and interest in her work, manners, speech, appearance, and her kindness toward students. These documents describe Barnett as a stellar employee who was “very popular with employees and pupils.” In April 1913, Superintendent Jesse B. Mortsolf wrote that Barnett was a “thoroughly competent nurse and the interest and industry that she brings into the work is very unusual … she is kind hearted, loves children, and is much devoted to her life’s work.” The following year, Mortsolf added that Barnett was, in his view, “the best employee” at Stewart and that there was not “… a better nurse in the entire Service.” Her evaluations were filled with this type of praise, and when she resigned from Stewart in 1917 her final evaluation described her as “among the very best” employees working in the federal Indian Service.3
Though constant in their praise, these evaluations also frequently included comments that illustrate the difficulty Stewart officials had in reconciling Allie Barnett’s capabilities with her race and the white supremacist mission that underscored Indian boarding schools’ existence. A 1910 evaluation that celebrated Barnett’s work ethic and relationships with students and peers explained her success by asserting that it was because Barnett, a “colored” woman, “understands her position and her place.” A December 1914 report similarly commended her work and noted that Barnett, “although a Negro is a great favorite among employees.” Framing her success as an anomaly, rather than exploring ideas that might upend white supremacist notions of racial inequality, seems to have made Barnett’s popularity easier to digest. The following year, a visiting Special Indian Agent who evaluated Barnett’s performance suggested that her internalization of white values explained her accomplishments. Barnett was, he wrote, “… black without but white within.” Based on the content of her evaluation reports, only one Stewart official acknowledged both Barnett’s skill and the reason why a nurse of her talents was working within the Indian boarding school system, which had difficulty hiring qualified personnel. He wrote of Barnett, “… it is extremely doubtful if we could secure the services of so efficient a nurse except for the fact that she is a negro which would limit her opportunities outside.”4
What did Allie Barnett think of all this? It is impossible to know her personal thoughts on the matter. She was not given an opportunity to respond in her evaluations, and there are no letters or notes in her personnel file that address this issue. However, Barnett was certainly aware of the meaning of such remarks, as well as the irony of her success as a black woman at a school that elevated whiteness above all else. Barnett’s personal experiences and reading tastes, detailed in her evaluations, also suggest her broader interest in and knowledge of African American life and U.S. politics during the period she worked at Stewart. In addition to living in states with segregation laws, Barnett subscribed to The Chicago Defender, a newspaper that chronicled black life in the U.S., including racial violence against African Americans and the indignities of segregation and Jim Crow laws. She also subscribed to the weekly newspaper The Indianapolis Ledger, another African American periodical, as well as the Woman’s National Weekly, a pro-women’s suffrage publication. Additionally, Barnett worked for the federal government at a time when President Woodrow Wilson oversaw the segregation of federal offices in Washington, D.C. Though there is no evidence of segregationist practices on the Stewart campus, Barnett was surely aware that her employer had adopted such policies.
Barnett’s experiences also beg the question of how she viewed the assimilationist mission at Stewart. How did she reconcile working within a system that deemed non-white people as inferior? Was federal service her best option for employment, as one Stewart superintendent surmised? Or did she embrace federal efforts to reshape Indigenous life in the U.S.? Without hearing directly from Barnett, these questions are unanswerable. We do know that Barnett taught Native students about health and hygiene, topics federal officials deemed critical to their assimilation, and we have one example of her writing on these subjects. In a May 1912 essay, Barnett asserted that the “cleanliness of home, clothes, and body is equally as important as cleanliness of surroundings,” and warned that germs and bacteria in homes caused illness. She advocated that students enjoy fresh air and sunlight, and provided specific guidelines for maintaining personal hygiene. Barnett did not directly connect good hygiene with whiteness or a lack thereof with Native Americans, nor did she challenge the negative assumptions about Native cleanliness many within the Indian Service held.5
Allie Barnett resigned from the Stewart Indian School in July 1917. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to transfer from Stewart to the Haskell Institute, another Native American boarding school, in Lawrence, Kansas, and decided to return home to care for her aging parents. In Kansas she worked as a private nurse and became president of a local Red Cross Society for African American women, where she taught home nursing and hygiene practices.6 In 1921, Barnett married Philip C. Jones and moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma, where she continued to work as a home nurse.7 She remained there for the rest of her life and died in 1960. By that time, Stewart had changed dramatically. Students secured greater freedom to embrace their Indigenous identities, a process that continued until the school closed in 1980. The white supremacy on which the boarding school system was built also increasingly faltered. Stewart hired Native instructors beginning in the 1930s, had an Indigenous superintendent in the 1970s, and by 1980 had employed multiple African American teachers. Barnett’s tenure, along with decades of student and parent activism, helped pave the way for these changes at the Stewart Indian School.
- Office of Indian Affairs, “Report of the Superintendent of Indian Schools, 1902” (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1900), Box 1, General Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, RG 75, National Archives and Records Building, Washington, D.C. Return to text.
- Office of Indian Affairs, “Course of Study for the Indian Schools of the United States, Industrial and Literary” (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1901), 39, Box 1, General Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, RG 75, National Archives and Records Building, Washington, D.C. Return to text.
- “Efficiency Reports, 1913–1917,” Allie H. Barnett Personnel File, National Archives at St. Louis, St. Louis, MO. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Allie Barnett, “Let us Help Our Health Officers,” May 2, 1912, Folder 8, Box 100, Central Classified Files, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Return to text.
- The Atchison Daily Globe, “Red Cross Workers,” July 11, 1917. Return to text.
- The Atchison Daily Globe, December 13, 1921. Return to text.
Samantha M. Williams has a PhD in History from University of California, Santa Cruz. She has worked as an intelligence analyst, researcher, and consultant, and is currently finishing a manuscript on the history of the Stewart Indian School.