Red Print Heartbeat: African-American Nurses Who Set the Pulse of Health Care


Submitted by Ferlanda Nixon

Months before the coronavirus sparked a pandemic and became a part of the American lexicon, members of the Arts and Letters Committee of Morristown Alumnae Chapter (MAC) set in motion designs for “Red Print Heartbeat: African-American Nurses Who Set the Pulse of Health Care.” Red Print Heartbeat is a photo exhibition that showcases trailblazing African-American nurses throughout history.

On display for the entire month of March for Women’s History Month at the Morristown Public Library, “Red Print Heartbeat” featured 16 women who made an indelible impact in health care despite the existence of systemic inequality, racism and discrimination in the United States. The women who persevered and followed their calling in the face of adversity and denials to nursing schools and professional organizations included Sorors Joycelyn Elders and Regina Marcia Benjamin.

Soror Elders became the first African American appointed as Surgeon General of the United States in 1993. She began her nursing career as a nurse’s aide in a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee before she joined the United States Army in May 1953. During her three years in the Army, Soror Elders trained as a physical therapist. In 1987, then-governor Bill Clinton appointed her as director of the Arkansas Department of Health, making her the first African-American woman in the state to hold that position.

Like her African-American women predecessors in health care, Soror Elders was not immune to racism in the workplace notwithstanding her achievements as a pediatric endocrinologist and a professor at one of the nation’s top medical schools. “Some people in the American Medical Association, a certain group of them, didn’t even know that I was a physician. They were passing a resolution to say that from now on every Surgeon General must be a physician — which was a knock at me…They don’t expect a black female to have accomplished what I have and to have done the things that I have,” she remarked sometime after being appointed United States Surgeon General by President Bill Clinton.

Soror Elders paved the way for Soror Benjamin to become the second African-American woman to serve as Surgeon General of the United States. Appointed by the nation’s first and only African-American president, Barack Obama, Soror Benjamin held the position of United States Surgeon General from 2009 – 2013. Destined for greatness long before her appointment to Obama’s cabinet, Soror Benjamin was the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected to the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association.

“I’m so proud that our Arts and Letters Committee had the foresight to curate Red Print Heartbeat,” commented MAC President Marian Sykes Johnson. “This coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic is a humbling experience and reminds us to be grateful for the health care workers who battle on the frontlines every day. The moment in which we’re currently living makes Red Print Heartbeat even more meaningful.”

To view a presentation of Red Print Heartbeat, visit https://bit.ly/2RuxvvP.


Submitted by Ferlanda Nixon Months before the coronavirus sparked a pandemic and became a part of the American lexicon, members of the Arts and Letters Committee of Morristown Alumnae Chapter (MAC) set in motion designs for “Red Print Heartbeat: African-American Nurses Who Set the Pulse of Health Care.” Red Print Heartbeat is a photo exhibition …

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