Reference Entry

Osborne, Estelle Massey Riddle

Keay Davidson

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Osborne, Estelle Massey Riddle

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nursing leader, was born Estelle Massey in Palestine, Texas, the daughter of Hall Massey and Bettye Estelle (maiden name unknown). At the time of her birth, many black Americans lived in conditions of poverty and sickness that were comparable to those during slavery. Because black doctors were scarce, black nurses provided the bulk of health care for their communities. Thus for working-class and poor black women, nursing offered an appealing way to embark on a profession, to enter the middle class and gain prestige, and to help others of their race at a time when segregation was common and racism virulent.As a young woman, Osborne considered becoming a dentist like her brother. He dissuaded her, however, arguing that she did not have enough money for dental training and that in any case, nursing was a more suitable job for a woman. At the time, the profession was racially segregated across much of the nation. In 1920, after briefly attending Prairie View College in Prairie View, Texas, Osborne enrolled at the nursing school based at the racially segregated Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri; she graduated in 1923 and later scored 93.3 percent on the Missouri state nursing exam. Named head nurse of a large ward at the hospital, she became the first black administrator there.In 1927 Osborne moved to New York City, where she enrolled in Teachers College at Columbia University. Three years later she earned a bachelor of science degree in Nursing Education. In 1931, supported by a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, she obtained a master's degree in Nursing Education—the first black American nurse to do so. She became an instructor at Harlem Hospital and later served as educational director at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. In the mid-1930s she returned to St. Louis and became the first black nursing director at Homer G. Phillips Hospital. She also participated in a Rosenwald-funded study of health and welfare in the rural South.At that time, white-run southern nursing schools and colleges rejected black students, while most northern schools set a quota on the number of black applicants that were admitted. The professional societies were no less segregated. Black nurses were denied membership in seventeen state affiliates of the American Nurses Association and in the National League of Nursing Education. In addition, salaries for black nurses were markedly lower than those for whites. The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), founded in 1908, tried to defend the rights of black nurses but was hampered by its tiny membership—only 175 members in 1933. The following year, Osborne was elected president.Mabel Keaton Staupers was Osborne's choice as NACGN's first executive secretary. Their energetic collaboration would do much to rejuvenate the organization and thereby mobilize the NACGN toward the goal of opening up the profession to black nurses. As women, Osborne and Staupers had much in common. Both had been married to black doctors, then divorced, then remarried; neither had any children. An associate described both women as “flamboyant”; Osborne was “tall, had a high sense of fashion, wore exquisite jewelry, was noted for her hats, and her sense of grooming and dress” and would have appeared “perfectly at home in Vogue or Harper's Bazaar” (Hine, 121). Together the two women toured the eastern and midwestern states, where they met with black nurses and observed their working situations. As Hine has recorded, they encountered “dozens of moribund state affiliates, disillusioned nurses, and a generally uninformed public…. The overwhelming majority of black nurses neither belonged to nor apparently identified with the NACGN” (121).Throughout her five-year tenure as NACGN president, Osborne wrote articles decrying the serious shortage of black nurses, particularly in the South. “Hundreds of miles of rural areas are untouched by Negro nurses in both the North and the South,” she reported in the Journal of Negro Education in 1937. “If a county has money to employ but one or two nurses the preference is given to the white nurse, irrespective of the size of the Negro population.” In addition, many black nurses received poor training. Osborne charged that of the more than one hundred “so-called training schools for Negro nurses” then in operation, only twenty-six were accredited by the National League of Nursing Education.During World War II, Osborne served on the NACGN Special Defense Committee, which fought racial discrimination in the hiring of military nurses. She also became consultant to the National Nursing Council for War Service. In 1943 her friend and congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton of Ohio pushed through the bill authorizing the creation of the U.S. Cadet Nurses Corps as an arm of the U.S. Public Health Service. The bill's antidiscrimination clause marked a major step forward for black nurses. However, although the war effort had afforded blacks greater economic opportunities, the battle for fair treatment of black nurses was far from won. In August 1945, the last month of the war, Osborne pointed out (with coauthor Josephine Nelson) in the American Journal of Nursing that there were only eight thousand registered black nurses in the United States—2.9 percent of the total number—even though blacks made up 10 percent of the population.In 1946 Osborne became the first black member of the nursing faculty at the New York University School of Education, a post she held until 1952. Also in 1946 she received the Mary Mahoney Award from the NACGN, named for the first black registered nurse trained in the United States, and became associate general director of the National League for Nursing; she held that post until 1967. Having gained a national reputation, Osborne served as secretary of the New York State committee supporting Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign. That same year she became the first black member elected to the board of directors of the American Nurses Association (ANA), a position she held for four years. In 1949 she was an ANA delegate to the International Congress of Nurses held in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1952 she was elected first vice president of the National Council of Negro Women, which she had helped to found in 1935 and which she had served previously as second vice president.In the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the emergence of the civil rights movement, opportunities for black nurses improved dramatically. By 1949, as Osborne reported in the Journal of Negro Education, 354 U.S. nursing schools had adopted a nondiscrimination policy, compared to only twenty-nine in 1941; and over the same eight-year period, the number of southern nursing associations that refused to accept black nurses as members had been cut almost in half. These gains were seemingly so significant that in 1951 NACGN officials voted to disband the organization because they believed it had achieved its primary goals. At the group's final meeting, however, Osborne cautioned her colleagues about continuing inequalities in preliminary education and the problem of segregated and inadequately supported nursing schools, about salary differentials on the basis of race, and about fewer job opportunities and resistant barriers to advancement. “Frequently there is merely token or no representation of Negro nurses in the policy-making areas at the highest levels of participation,” Osborne said, linking the NACGN's unfinished work with the “unfinished business of democracy” (Carnegie, 100).In 1959 New York University honored Osborne by presenting her its Nurse of the Year award. In 1978 she became the first black nurse to be recognized as an honorary fellow by the American Academy of Nursing. That same year—another sign of how much American nursing had changed since her youth—the American Nurses Association elected its first black president, Barbara Nichols. Osborne died in Oakland, California. In 1984 the American Nurses Association inducted her into its Hall of Fame.

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Subjects: History

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