Over the next several weeks Buncombe County Special Collections will share five different posts by former Special Collections (NC Room) Librarian Zoe Rhine. Since “retiring” in January 2020, Zoe has continued to follow her research interests; investigating the lives of African Americans in the late 19th century.
Do you have research or stories about Asheville and Buncombe County you’d like to share with the community? In the near future, we’ll be making calls for community members to submit posts to HeardTell, so keep an eye on the blog and our other social media over the coming weeks for more information.
When we hear the word “nurse” today, we think of a skilled health care professional, working most often in a medical facility such as a hospital. But in 1890, the term “nurse” had multiple meanings. It
The 1890 Asheville City Directory listed twenty-six Black women as “nurses,” and four as “sick nurses.” Two of the twenty-six nurses worked in hotels: Carrie Bailey worked at the Oaks Hotel and lived at her own residence while Nannie Hood worked and lived at the Glen Rock Hotel. In addition, Annie Bangle worked and lived at the Ravenscroft School.
Research verified that the remaining twenty-three nurses worked at private residences in white neighborhoods. Six of these women lived in their own homes while thirteen (65%) lived in the homes of their employers. The addresses of the remaining four could not be verified.
The four women listed as sick nurses were Tempie Avery, Celia Hemphill, Mary Walton and M. L. Whittaker. They all resided in their own homes.
Perhaps the term “sick nurse” indicated a higher level of experience in patient care. At any rate, the term sick nurse seems to have disappeared by the 20th century. The 1896 City directory does not use the term. Therefore, we cannot say with certainty that sick nurses were the only ones taking care of patients – the terms “nurse” and “sick nurse” could be interchangeable.
What exactly were the roles of nurses in 1890? Looking at the healthcare conditions during this time period gives some perspective on the nebulous interpretation of nursing. Most people at this time were born, endured various illnesses and injuries, and died at home without ever having been in a hospital. In 1885, Asheville’s Mission Hospital was founded in a rented five-room house on South Main Street, and two white women were listed as working there. While some beds in the basement were allocated for Black patients, it is doubtful that Black staff, with the exception of cook, would have been hired. And since most sick people were cared for at home in 1890, nurses generally worked in private duty.
There were no Black hospitals in Asheville until the 1900s. Dr. William Torrence, a Black physician, established a clinic, known as Torrence Hospital, in his home at 95 Hill Street, which closed when he died in 1915. The Blue Ridge hospital opened in 1922 and closed eight years later, probably as a result of the Depression. Dr. Mary Francis Shuford treated Black patients through a clinic, which later became The Asheville Colored Hospital at 268 College Street. In 1951, it consolidated with Mission Hospital.
After the Civil War, the first national nurse training programs began to appear. However, segregation prevented many Black students from attending these schools and obtaining employment as trained nurses. Hospitals, too, were largely segregated. The Black community responded by setting up Black hospitals with training programs such as the one established by Spelman Seminary in 1886.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that nursing organizations formed to maintain educational standards through licensure. However, again, the rules differed for Black nurses. North Carolina, for instance, enacted a nursing licensure exam in 1903, but Black students were barred from taking the exam until 1915. Therefore, it’s safe to say that the women listed as nurses in 1890 were generally excluded from formal training institutes, and were functioning outside the strict regulations that oversee nursing care today.
Midwifery fulfilled an important role well into the 20th century, yet surprisingly the term “midwife” is not found in the city directory.* Were some of these nurses actually midwives? By 1890, physicians began encouraging doctor-attended, rather than midwife-assisted, hospital births. However, doctors were expensive. Midwifery persisted, especially in the South, to provide care for poor women, both Black and white. It is safe to assume that many babies were still being born at home in Asheville, assisted by a “granny midwife” or “nurse.” “Midwife” may not have been a term that women would think to apply to themselves, either because there was a stigma attached or because assisting deliveries would not have been their main source of income or even considered an “occupation.” Most likely, it was because as “nurse,” they played several different roles. It might not be unusual to transition, as the need arose, from assisting a birth to providing postnatal care to becoming a children’s nurse.
A report meant to clarify occupational terms used by census takers had this to say about nurses: “…the large increase in this occupation in 1900 is due in part to the return [i.e., listing] of nurses, particularly in the South, of women who have the care of the younger children of the household in which they are employed, and who would have been more properly returned [i.e., listed] as servants.” It seems likely that the City Directory data collectors would have also seen the occupation of child caregiver as synonymous with nurse.
This letter-to-the-editor shows the prevalent use of the term nurse to mean child caregiver.
Of course, this piece also says much more – it gives a glimpse of the racial dynamics affecting Black servants in 1890 Asheville. Black women found caring for white children as yet another way to survive, and they were quite clearly seen as servants, sometimes with disdain, much the same as Black cooks and maids.
To better discern which nurses were children’s nurses, it helps to look at the people who hired them. Several families who could afford to hire nurses were also able to hire other live-in Black domestics.
For example, George and Orra Henderson hired Annie Logan as nurse along with other Black servants: cook, Callie Hoey; coachman, Sid Townes; and driver, William Logan. The Hendersons had two children, ages six and two, at this time—supporting the idea that nurse Annie Logan served as a child caregiver.
Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Williamson, lived at 20 Oak Street, along with business partner, Thomas B. Doe, whose wife, Dora, was Williamson’s sister. The Black domestics in this household included: nurse, Annie Love; coachman, George Wylie; and cook, Charlotte Walker. Thomas and Dora Doe had four children born between 1883 and 1890 and would have had obvious need for a children’s nurse.
Profiles of Nurses
Nurses left no records of their own, and because no 1890 Federal Census records survive, gathering information is difficult. Research on women is made harder because they often changed surnames. If their names do not appear in earlier or later directories or censuses, they are impossible to trace.
But sometimes a search through several sources can help piece together a story.
Julia Erwin was one of the six nurses living at her own address in 1890. She lived at 5 Mountain Street along with Virgil, a laborer, and Rachel, a laundress. One might assume Julia was the wife, but the 1900 Federal census shows that she was the daughter of Virgil and Rachel, born in Asheville in 1878. This means Julia would have only been 12-13 years old while working as a nurse. We know that children in Black families often worked to help support the family, and that, traditionally during enslavement, it was not unusual for young Black children to watch over younger children. Still, while feasible, it seems notable that Julia at such a young age would have been put in charge of childcare, or responsible for the care of a sick person.
By working as nurse and sporadically as laundress, Celia Hemphill was able to buy property and thereby gain an economic foothold to support herself later in life. Born in Charleston in 1864, she was in Asheville by 1890 working as a sick nurse. She married Robert Hemphill in 1893 and, in 1894, Celia bought a lot on the south side of Clemmons Street for $200. Celia was listed as being able to read and write while her husband was not. The 1896 City Directory lists Celia as a nurse living in the household of T. W. Sharpless at 64 North French Broad Avenue. Robert died in 1901 and, in 1920, Celia is again working as a private nurse. It appears that through owning her own house, she was able to support herself in her later years through taking in boarders. She died in 1937 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery.
The legendary Asheville nurse, Tempie Avery, listed as a sick nurse in 1890, has been written about extensively. Born a slave, she was well-known throughout her life as a midwife and as a nurse, both attending to the sick and caring for children. As a free woman, she also worked as a laundress. She never received professional training, but as Eliza Woodfin wrote, “Love taught her wisdom in caring for the young and those who were ill.” In 2017, the Montford Center was renamed the Tempie Avery Montford Community Center as a memorial to her service.
Was anyone in your family a nurse or did they ever need the services of one? If you have any information to share, please visit the Buncombe County Special Collections, Pack Memorial Library. If you are unable to visit, please call 828.250.4740 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes and Sources
*Of interest, Johnny Baxter states in an interview that his mother, Alice Henry Baxter, was a laundress. However, her death certificate states her occupation as midwife. In addition, at least two of the Baxter children were delivered by a white midwife named Sally Ray.
Asheville Citizen, The Sunday Citizen, “Colored Physician Died Yesterday”, (Dr. William Green Torrence), May 23, 1915.
Asheville Citizen, “Blue Ridge Hospital, September 25, 1922; Asheville Sunday Citizen, “Negro Bicycle Rider Injured in Accident,” July 6, 1930; Asheville Citizen, Announcement of formal opening, September 25, 1922, p. 4.
Asheville Citizen-Times, “Dr. Shuford’s New Clinic for Negroes,” May 25, 1941.
Baxter, Johnny interviewed by Louis D. Silveri, August 5, 1975 Southern Highlands Research Center, The University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Book 87, Page 358.) Celia Hemphill.
Essential Hospitals: Relentlessly Driving the Best in Health Care Innovation; America’s Essential Hospitals. https://essentialhospitals.org/about/history-of-public-hospitals-in-the-united-states/
Fulenweider, Harry W. Asheville City Directory and Business Reflex, 1890. Charleston, S.C.
Holt, Annye S. The Black Physician in Asheville, North Carolina: Historical and Factual, 1999.
McIlwaine, J. S, Asheville City Directory for 1896-1897, J.S. McIlwaine, publisher, Atlanta, Georgia.
Murray, Betsy. Tempy Avery 1823?-1917, HeardTell Blog, North Carolina Room, August 30, 2013.
Pollitt, Phoebe, author of The History of Professional Nursing in North Carolina, 1902-2002, and African American and Cherokee Nurses in Appalachia: A History, 1900-1965. Personal conversations with the author, October 1 and November 17, 2020.
United States Census Bureau. REPORT ON OCCUPATIONS CHAPTER I. RETURN OF OCCUPATIONS AT THE TWELFTH CENSUS. ENUMERATION. [https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1900/occupations/occupations-part-2.pdf]
Young. Judith, “Monthly” Nurses, “Sick” Nurses, and Midwives in 19th-Century Toronto, 1830-1891, https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/cbmh.21.2.281
About the Author
Zoe Rhine worked in the North Carolina Room for over 27 years, retiring in January 2020. Since then she has continued her research on the early Black teachers in Asheville. While beginning to research the teachers in 1890, she said, “I wondered what other occupations were open to Black people in Asheville in 1890.” At first thinking it would make an interesting blog post, the work turned into these five posts and will be followed with her research on Black male occupations in 1890. The research was done by focusing closely on typical research tools, such as the Asheville City Directory and the Federal Census records, to produce new information about the Black community in Asheville in 1890.
About the Author
Louise Maret has worked as a researcher in primatology, botany, and public health. As a writer, she has been involved in several training and educational projects, most recently as co-author of a college-level humanities webtext,The Search For Meaning and Value. After living in New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Georgia, she moved to Asheville in 1988 and settled in Lakeview Park where she raised two children and a variety of plants and animals. While at Pack Library one day, she found the North Carolina Room–“where I became immediately entranced.”
It was a different time. Children were assets and expected to work in both Black and White families.to provide for the family. Children worked at home and for others. A child’s nurse was considered an easy job compared to other jobs.
Orphaned children were apprenticed(bound) out to learn a trade at age three until 18 or 21 usually farm labor or domestics. Children were considered orphans if their father died and their mother was living. Bound children are often listed as servants. White children worked in factories doing very dangerous jobs.