R e t u r n   t o   t a b l e   o f   c o n t e n t s

Nursing Dean Ada Fort (far right) did everything in her power to make sure that graduate students Verdelle Bellamy (right) and Allie Saxon came to no harm when Emory was integrated in 1963.
 

Racially Motivated
Today, Emory’s nursing school can point with pride to the diversity of its students, nearly one-fourth of whom are minorities. To appreciate how ordinary this now seems, it helps to look at extraordinary acts of courage that have come before.

By Valerie Gregg and Pam Auchmutey

 

Verdelle Bellamy (top) and Allie Saxon, both 63MN, consider Dean Ada Fort a role model for career women. After receiving her master’s, Bellamy went on to become president of the Georgia Board of Nursing and was the first African American to receive an administrative appointment at the Veteran’s Administration in Atlanta. She retired as associate chief of the Nursing Service for Geriatrics at the VA Medical Center in 1998. Saxon also had a long career with the federal government and retired in 1990 as a contractor’s representative for Medicaid and Medicare with the Health Care Financing Administration in Atlanta.

 

Virginia Proctor, 50G, 50TH, recalls that Ada Fort was committed to doing the right thing for her students, for Emory, and for nursing. Proctor worked with Fort as director of student development.

 

The late Henry Bowden, 32C, 34L, led Emory’s legal battle to admit black students to the university.

 

Tonyie Jenkins-Andrews is studying nursing to begin a second career. She agrees with Verdelle Bellamy that it’s not a perfect world. Jenkins-Andrews occasionally has seen students become angry when a fellow student makes a thoughtless comment about a race or culture. In her view, dealing with people from different backgrounds, including confronting tactless comments head on when necessary, is part of growing up. “People don’t always realize how what they are saying may sound to another person,” she says. “When there is a misunderstanding, people should talk to each other and clear things up. We have a way to go, but I think we are getting there.”

 

 

It was a cold, silent day in January 1963, and apprehension was in the air. During the previous two years, discord, violence, and pure ugliness had accompanied many of the first black students onto the campuses of southern universities. Sixty miles away, the University of Georgia had recently admitted its first African-American students (including Hamilton Holmes, who would later become the first black graduate of Emory’s medical school) to the tune of racist chanting, bloody riots, and death threats.

At Emory, Dean Ada Fort of the School of Nursing waited anxiously on that brisk day with her staff and students to welcome Verdelle Bellamy and Allie Saxon, both master’s-level students, who integrated the university with elegance, grace, and little fanfare.

“We walked in the front door of the school, where Dean Fort and all the students were waiting to greet us,” says Bellamy. “From then on, it was business as usual.”

Bellamy was nervous but never frightened. “We were there for one purpose—to get the best education possible, and we were a tight-knit class of students. If one of us had a problem, we all had a problem.”

Fort, now deceased, did all the worrying for them. At the end of each day, Fort stood by the front window of the nursing school building, praying fervently as she watched Bellamy and Saxon set out across campus. Virginia Proctor, Fort’s director of student development, remembers it well.

“We watched them like hawks to make sure they came to no harm,” she says. “Especially the first few weeks, we were concerned for their general welfare. We never dreamed it would go off as smoothly as it did. Inside the school, we never picked up on any ill feeling toward Verdelle and Allie at all. They were so charming and happy to be there, and they worked hard.”


Midwife to change

Although the integration of Emory was quiet and uneventful, it was not achieved without birthing pains, and Ada Fort was a formidable midwife.

“Dean Fort could hold her own under any circumstances and with anybody,” says Bellamy. “During those times, being so very powerful was not popular for women or nurses. Yet Ada Fort was a force to be reckoned with—that was well known throughout the country and on campus.”

No one knew that better than Henry Bowden, then chair of the university’s Board of Trustees. Proctor says he discussed with Fort the possibility of waiting another year when he learned that she planned to admit two black students in fall 1962.

Although the state legislature had voted in 1961 to allow public schools to admit African-American students, laws remained on the books stating
that private schools like Emory would lose their tax-exempt status if they did so. Bowden and the trustees took the matter to court, arguing the university had a right to set its own admissions policies. Bowden hoped to settle the tax matter and let the statewide uproar over integration die down a bit before Emory admitted black students.

But Fort told him that the time is always right to do the right thing. She asked Dorothy Tilly, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and cohort of Martin Luther King Jr., to find two qualified nursing applicants who “could take the heat.” Bellamy and Saxon fit the bill, and Fort was not about to turn them away.

“I can see it right now—Dean Fort looked him in the eye and said: ‘Yes, Henry, this year. There’s no better year, and if we wait, it will go on and on. This year is the right year,’” Proctor remembers.

Like Bowden, Fort wasn’t inclined to jeopardize Emory’s tax-exempt status either. She had Bellamy and Saxon take classes at Atlanta University the fall of 1962, so they could keep up with their studies while the case was settled in court. “It was all supposed to be impossible, but Dean Fort said: ‘No indeed, it’s not impossible,’” says Proctor.


Spreading the word

Thanks to people like Ada Fort, deans today don’t have to deal with the same raw tensions and threat of violence. Since then, enrollment of minorities in the School of Nursing has grown, slowly at first and then steadily. While the majority of current students (76.7%) are Caucasian, nearly one-fourth (23.3%) represent minority groups. Of those, 14.8% are African American, 5.4% are Asian, 2.7% are Hispanic, and 0.4% are American Indian. Still, the school must do more to attract men and women from a variety of backgrounds to address the nation’s critical nursing shortage and serve the needs of an increasingly diverse population. According to the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses for 2000, 86.6% of the registered nurse population is white, 4.9% is black, and 2% is Hispanic. Of the total US population, 71.8% is white, 12.2% is black, and 11.4% is Hispanic. Given these statistics, minority groups are greatly underutilized as a pool for future nurse leaders.

“The changing demographics of our country tell us that nursing will be extinct if it continues to be a white, middle-class women’s occupation,” says Dean Marla Salmon. “The nursing school traditionally has taken steps to address this, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing enough. We must continue to be proactive and seek out ways to connect with minority communities.”

One way is to build new partnerships with historically black colleges and universities in Atlanta, which offer no degree programs in nursing. “That’s a natural,” says Salmon. “We’re in the process of laying the groundwork to accomplish that.”

For several years, nursing faculty and students have worked with students at predominantly African-American Booker T. Washington High School. This past December, the nursing school hosted a performance by the high school’s chorus at a holiday party, catered by Booker T.’s Culinary Arts Academy, and made donations to its college scholarship fund. “It’s important to get to students at a young age and plant the notion that nursing is a career option for everybody,” says Salmon.

Making an effort to connect with all minority communities is important as well. Hispanic enrollment, now less than 3%, needs a big boost, given the dramatic growth of this population segment. US census figures for 2000 show that 6.5% (more than 600,000 people) who live in metropolitan Atlanta are Hispanic. The school now offers Spanish classes for faculty and students and may soon require the language for international nursing students.

This spring, two new links to the international community were established as the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing and the Cuban group MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba) moved into offices in the School of Nursing building. Established to improve the health of vulnerable people worldwide, the Lillian Carter Center is off and running (see related story in the News Briefs section). Nursing students have already worked on projects in Fiji and Haiti, and another student trip is planned to Cuba. Also, in May, three nursing faculty traveled to Germany for a faculty study program sponsored by the Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning at Emory.

These efforts continue a tradition begun by Fort in the 1970s to promote global diversity and awareness among students, faculty, and nursing professionals. The effort is gaining new momentum under Salmon, whose own world view has been shaped by her experiences in community health, international health, and workforce issues. The fact that Emory is located in a city with a growing international population and close ties to global organizations like The Carter Center only strengthens her resolve to enrich the student body and nursing workforce with people from many backgrounds and cultures.

“When I was with the federal government, my role was to lead international workforce development,” says Salmon, who worked in the US Department of Health and Human Services during the 1990s. “Early on, we recognized there was an emerging majority among African Americans and Hispanics and began to seek ways to broaden our workforce.”

“The only way to achieve that is to broaden the composition of our students, faculty, and staff,” she adds. “ If students and nurses from different backgrounds have good experiences, word will spread.”


Learning to see the other side

On another cold day in January 2001, Verdelle Bellamy met with Salmon, a dean with a formidable presence of her own, to talk about days past and the days to come. The two decided to develop an Ada Fort scholarship to help students who seek to make a difference through nursing, equity, and social justice. In Salmon’s view, Bellamy provides the nursing school with a link to the past and guidance for the future.

“Humanity being what it is, it will never be a perfect world,” says Bellamy. “There are still racial problems here on campus and across the country. It’s healthy to confront them—to sit down civilly, talk things over, and get some results, and there’s still a lot of work to do. We’ve got miles to go before we sleep.”

 

Holding her own in any company

Like Verdelle Bellamy and Allie Saxon nearly 20 years earlier, Mary Lambert wanted to advance her career with a master’s degree in nursing. So, in 1980, she applied to several schools but was most drawn to Emory. “I was impressed with how much time and attention they paid to me,” she says. “I wasn’t just another number coming in. They were really interested in my development.” Nursing graduates heard Lambert speak at this year’s diploma ceremony.

Mary Lambert, 81MN, has never been one to shy away from opportunity. Last fall, she took on a demanding role and learned to hold her breath at the same time.

A captain in the commissioned corps of the US Public Health Service, Lambert directs the Office of Military Liaison and Veterans Affairs and is among those reporting to the highest levels of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), including US Surgeon General David Satcher. She began her new job last November, just days before voters cast their ballots for presidential candidates Bush and Gore. Until the election was decided in December, Lambert and her colleagues were in limbo until they knew who would lead the new administration and what their priorities would be.

“I’m a public servant, and I’m going to work for whomever—politics matter not,” says Lambert. “But I tell people this is going to make a very interesting chapter in my book!”

In her new post, Lambert collaborates with the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA) to coordinate programs for the health and welfare of active military, veterans, and their families. Her office is also the DHHS contact point for veteran service organizations, such as the VFW and the American Legion, and she serves as a voice for DHHS on the board of directors for the Armed Services Retirement Homes.

Her graduate education at Emory led to many previous opportunities, including developing a two-year nursing program in Mississippi and working with the VA in Memphis. After years of serving with the Army Reserve, she went on active duty as assistant chief for community health nursing at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

“That was an eye-opener,” Lambert recalls. “I was there during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and many people came through Fort Jackson for processing to Saudi Arabia. We all came close to being deployed.”

After the conflict with Iraq ended, Lambert transferred to the US Public Health Service and was put in charge of a migrant health program on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her next assignment was for two months in Rwanda, which had lost 80% of its health care force to civil war. Lambert served as a technical consultant to the Ministry of Health to develop training programs for health care workers, including nurses.

“The place where I was housed had a wall around it with a guard 24 hours a day because the country was under martial law,” Lambert remembers. “I frequently saw children going to school with one leg because the other one had been blown off or cut off with a machete in the fighting. I also worked with people who had lost many family members in the war. I felt I had no room to complain about anything after that.”

Once stateside, Lambert worked with the Food and Drug Administration in Washington and then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, where she led the training and education branch of the National Immunization Program. She was planning to remain with the CDC for some time when, out of the blue, she got the call that enticed her back to Washington.

“I’ve always been able to hold my own in any company,” she says. “It has to do with my preparation at Emory and my parents. They always told me ‘you can do anything.’ ”—Pam Auchmutey

 

Catching people upstream

As a boy growing up in a small town in south Georgia, Bob Isom didn’t know where the world would take him. Many years later, while serving as a medical technologist in the US Air Force, a physician friend encouraged Isom to apply to Emory. The rest is nursing history.

From the moment he set foot on campus, Bob Isom, 72N, was a leader. The first male African American to study nursing at Emory, he was elected president of his freshman class. “I felt I had to be a role model, and I studied especially hard,” he says.

Isom continued to break new ground after he graduated. He headed for San Francisco, where he earned his pediatric nurse practitioner credentials from UCSF and a master’s degree in public health from UC Berkeley. He went on to serve as director of the Child Health and Disability Prevention Program in Contra Costa County’s public health department for 27 years.

There, he developed new models for nurses working in nontraditional areas, including social services. “I hired the first public health nurse to work in foster care in the state of California,” he says. “Since then, the state has decided to make sure there are public health nurses in all local departments of social services working as team members with child welfare workers.”

Isom retired two years ago from Contra Costa County and the US Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel, but he didn’t stay out of the workplace long. He was recently named nursing manager for foster care/out-of-home–placed children in the California Department of Human Services. “I direct the nurses and community health aides in providing public health nursing services to about 3,000 foster infants, children, and adolescents in the county, including youths on probation,” he says. “It is difficult and sometimes heartbreaking work, but it helps keep children healthy who might not have access to preventive health care.”

The importance of preventive medicine is a lesson he first learned at Emory. “Mary Hall, a public health nursing professor, was my greatest professional mentor,” he says. “She opened my eyes to community primary care and prevention health activities. She used to say: ‘It doesn’t make sense to be downstream catching drowning people who cannot swim when you can be upstream preventing people from falling in the stream in the first place.’ Better yet, we can teach them how to swim.”

That philosophy guided Isom’s career. “At Emory, I took as many classes as I could in public health and prevention,” he says. “I opted to work at Grady Hospital in an area with some home visiting along with clinical inpatient work. I had to deal with lots of family dynamics to make sure patients complied with their prescribed medical regimen. When I did my OB rotation, a lot of family support was involved, especially with teen mothers.”

Working as a nurse leader has helped Isom touch more lives than he might have otherwise. Former nursing Dean Ada Fort was a strong role model for him too. “We used to call the nursing school ‘Ada’s fort,’ ” Isom says fondly. “She ran a tight ship, and she had high expectations for students in every way. Whenever we were out anywhere, we had to remember we were nursing students at Emory and behave accordingly. She set high standards for all of us.”—Valerie Gregg

 

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