Florence Nightingale is credited with making nursing a profession. But! Do not get game twisted! It was not just her that made this career a professional (read: Google Mary Seacole). For this month, the work this woman did ALONE? Calling her a ‘Black Florence Nightingale’ is an INSULT. It is to her and the Black nurses of this profession (including my mother Bessie, adopted grandmother Fran, and godmother, Karen) this piece is dedicated. Thank you. -JBHarris
Ms. Maude Cullen was another gem I found during Black History Month. She was a nurse, nurse-midwife–and operated as a nurse practicioner in South Carolina. I am the daughter and goddaughter of nurses, so I am aware of how demanding this profession is. I am also aware of the history of this profession, and the prizing of the legacy of Florence Nightingale over any legacy. I understand her contribution and the desire to elevate the job of nursing to a profession. This is drilled into every nursing student; and in fairness, the career, the profession of nursing, is not even 200 years old!
There are have been advancements of skills and techniques since her time, and contributions from nurses all over the world to strengthen this profession. But none so powerful as what Ms. Maude Cullen did for the people of Berkeley County, South Carolina. A place so destitute and neglected, it was nicknamed ‘Hellhole Swamp’: an area that was 400 square miles.
No doctors would visit there; the terrain was horrible, the county was 90% Black; many citizens of the county didn’t have electricity or telephones. Yet, here is this Black woman–serving an entire community on her nursing education, faith and tenacity–from 1923-1971. Forty-eight years. But she served that community until she passed away in 1990; after retiring from clinical work in 1971, and her clinic closed in 1980. Ms. Maude Cullen asked the county to repurpose the building! It became a Senior Wellness Center then–and she delivered Meals On Wheels five days a week!
She took care of a community neglected by anyone else, in a time where community was all anyone else had! She trained nurse-midwives (including public health and obstetrics), set bones, gave immunizations and was the only ‘doctor’ some folk saw for at least 2 generations. With a lantern, and by lantern in some cases (Nightingale is alleged to have done her work by lamp as well; one of her monikers is ‘The Lady With the Lamp.’). In December of 1953, Callen’s story and work were shown in Life Magazine. At that point, Ms. Cullen had been doing this work for 30 years. The donations poured in from the article–$20,000–and it was enough to open a proper clinic, the Maude E. Cullen clinic. She made clinics in churches, her house before then. And she was one of nine (yes, one less than ten, one more than eight) nurse-midwives in the state! We won’t even get into how many of those were Black!
Her work makes me weep. Openly. Loudly. And from a place of pride and devastation. I think of those people she served, and what would have happened had she not done anything. I wonder what would have happened had Ms. Maude just quit! But that’s the thing, one of the things about Black women, we don’t quit that easy. We know the stakes of quitting; what it looks like to be quit on. We know what ‘give up’ looks like, what forgotten is, and the hardest thing is to keep going. Ms. Maude kept going.
Her story reminds me that I, too, must keep going.
I refuse to call Ms. Maude Cullen the ‘Black’ Florence Nightingale. That cheapens her. That makes her seem as if she is striving to be her equal. It takes from her legacy, her impact and the lives she touched and saved, in some cases. It is with utter reverence that I remember her. And remind you all to keep carrying your own lamp. You don’t know who is watching for you.
Thank you, Ms. Maude.
[image from Timeline]