Mary Willingham

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Mary Willingham, referred to as “Mamie” was interviewed by Sadie B. Hornsby in association with the Federal Writers’ Project on March 14, 1939. In the interview, Mary describes her life and work as a practical nurse.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Hospital bed.jpg

Mary Willingham was an African American woman who didn’t have a history of her birth. All she knew was that she was born on a farm in Clarke County and worked on the field ever since she was little for 16 years. As for her education, Willingham went to Morton’s Chapel, a church house, only got as far as the 2nd grade which explains why she doesn’t speak properly. She was then sent to live with white people and help aid them until she was married. She hardly knew how she met her husband, only that they got married after he separated from his first wife five years after their divorce. They had two sons and two daughters together. Her time as a nurse was filled with being neglected by white doctors and witnesses other black nurses having similar experiences. Her experience dealing with a white female patient whose pulse was too fast. When the white male doctor neglected her warnings, the patient eventually needed to go to the hospital and died six months later.1 The blame was placed on Willingham who since then was very careful with her work. Since confessing of all her experiences, most of which patients died, Mary felt she couldn’t stay at her place any longer. She took a bus right after the interview with no context of her whereabouts afterward.2

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Adultification” of African American Children in America[edit | edit source]
Farm in 1930.jpeg

In the United States, it’s no surprise that African American children are exploited to labor at such a young age. “Beginning in slavery, Black boys and girls were imagined as chattel and were often put to work as young as two and three years old. Subjected to much of the same dehumanization suffered by Black adults, Black children were rarely perceived as being worthy of playtime and were severely punished for exhibiting normal child-like behaviors.”3 Despite the abolishment of slavery, many black families in America in the 20th century had children working on farms to help obtain income. This left no room for a normal childhood. This is especially true for young black girls who are already perceived in society as mature women. “Ultimately, adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence.”4

The Racial Disparities of Black Americans in Healthcare[edit | edit source]

It might be surprising to some that business practices in healthcare neglect black people since it’s supposed to be a safe place, but it happens way more often than you think. African Americans are stereotyped to be more tolerant to pain, therefore, requiring little to no medicine for procedures that could lead to death. Take for instance pregnant black women who are statistically three to four times more likely to die of childbirth than white women. A qualitative study interviewed pregnant black women and their experiences of feeling unsafe in these environments. Stereotypes such as assumptions of being a single mother, having too many children, financial situations that could pose a threat for a baby all contribute to the distrust black women face. “Participants described how assumptions about Black pregnant women negatively affected their access to resources intended to support healthy pregnancies. Several participants perceived social service providers to be judgmental and unwelcoming based on their attitudes and lines of questioning.”5


Patients aren’t the only ones that suffer from the disparities. Black nurses and nursing students also face scrutiny from fellow peers. In this field of work, around 80% of nurses around the United States are white and it goes deeper beyond the financial problems of Black Americans not being able to pursue such degrees. Many experiences of black nurses include being overlooked and undervalued as a person who is seeking to make a change. “Abuse of power by administrators and faculty and marginalization were cited as common experiences among Black nurses at all levels (nurses, nursing students, and faculty). Specific complaints included negative comments that affect self-esteem and self-confidence; lack of support from colleagues, peers, and faculty; acts of incivility among colleagues, peers, and faculty; character assassination; lack of access to equitable clinical learning experiences; and not being provided opportunities or support for career advancement.”6 This is unacceptable as a society that needs more black employees in healthcare to ensure black patients can finally have the safe place they deserve. There’s also a power dynamic between doctors and nurses. It is said that nurses are the ones to blame with situations in which the doctors are at fault. “[N]o one seems to believe doctor board members will behave in a parallel selfish manner. No, they are viewed as paragons of virtue, without whose judgment a board cannot possibly understand the complexities of care delivery.”7 This is dangerous and needs more awareness before stereotypes keep black nurses now and in the future from being prominent figures in the healthcare industry.

Impact of the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Black Americans during the Great Depression suffered the worse which is a known and unsurprising fact. They experienced the highest unemployment rate during the 1930s but due to having lower paying jobs, they didn’t have much of an impact on the economy when it collapsed. Not only was it recognized that Black Americans were suffering during this time, but they were also put on the side until the New Deal which did the bare minimum in helping the black community. “Although New Deal programs provided African Americans with badly needed economic assistance, they were administered at a state level where racial segregation was still widely, and systemically, enforced. The New Deal did little to challenge existing racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws prevalent during the 1930s.”8

References[edit | edit source]

  1. ↑Hornsby, I Ain't no Midwife
  2. ↑Ibid
  3. ↑Epstein et al, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood
  4. Ibid
  5. ↑Renee et al, Black Pregnant Women “Get the Most Judgment”: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of Black Women at the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Pregnancy
  6. ↑Robinson, Telling the Story of Role Conflict Among Black Nurses and Black Nursing Students: A Literature Review
  7. ↑Levy, When Blame is Lopsided, it can Lead to Tragedy
  8. ↑Klein, Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans

Bibliography[edit | edit source]