Staupers, Mabel K. 1890–1989
Mabel K. Staupers 1890–1989
Registered nurse, organization executive, civil rights advocate
Best known for her leading role in the drive to end segregation within the U.S. Armed Forces Nurse Corps during World War II, Mabel K. Staupers devoted her life to battling racial discrimination in the education and employment of African American nurses. In 1948, while serving as executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), she helped persuade the American Nurses’ Association to remove all barriers to black membership—a major victory in the campaign to integrate black nurses into the mainstream of American nursing. More than a quarter of a century earlier, her work with various minority organizations led to the establishment of the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium, Harlem’s first inpatient facility for black patients with tuberculosis and one of the few city hospitals where black physicians were permitted to treat their patients.
Friendly and self-confident, Staupers also had a keen political ability which allowed her to form close friendships with leaders in both the black and white communities and to use these contacts to help achieve her goals. She “played the… active, highly visible role of ’Interpreting the Negro nurse’ to the general public and marshaling the mass support so essential to their short-run struggle for equal education, fair employment opportunities, and professional integration,” wrote Darlene Clark Hine in Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950. Over the years, her tireless work on behalf of black nurses earned her numerous honors, including the 1951 Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Born in Barbados, West Indies, in 1890, Mabel Doyle Keaton Staupers moved to New York with her parents in 1903. The family settled in Harlem, where Staupers completed her primary and secondary education. In 1914 she was admitted to Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C. After graduating with honors three years later, she returned to New York to begin her career as a private-duty nurse. By 1920, however, her work among tuberculosis patients in Harlem had convinced her of the need for a clinic dedicated to the care of black patients suffering from the disease. Together with two black physicians, Louis T. Wright and James Wilson, she helped to organize the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium.
Born Mabel Doyle, February 27, 1890, in Barbados, West Indies; emigrated to New York, 1903; died November 29, 1989, in Washington, DC; daughter of Thomas and Pauline Doyle; married James Max Keaton, 1917 (divorced); married Fritz C. Staupers, 1931 (died 1949). Education: Received degree from Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing (now Howard University College of Nursing), 1917.
Private-duty nurse, New York City, 1917-20; helped organize Booker T. Washington Sanitarium, Harlem, New York, 1920, and became director of nursing, 1920-21; superintendent of nurses, Mudget Hospital, Philadelphia, 1921-22; executive secretary, Harlem Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association, 1922-34; National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), executive secretary, 1934-49, president. 1949-50; cofoundmg member of National Council of Negro Women, 1935; published autobiography, No Time for Prejudice: A Story of the Integration of Negroes in Nursing in the United Slates, 1961.
Awards: Spingam Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1951.
After one year as director of nursing at the Washington Sanitarium, Staupers realized that the drive to improve health care services for people in the black community began with better education and training for black health care professionals. With this in mind, she turned her attention from patient care to nursing education and administration, and accepted the job of superintendent of nurses at Mudget Hospital in Philadelphia. During this same period, a temporary assignment at the Jefferson Hospital Medical College provided her with an opportunity to observe firsthand the lack of respect among college administrators and physicians for black medical and nursing personnel.
In 1922 Staupers returned to New York where, under the direction of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association, she conducted a detailed investigation into the health care needs of the Harlem community. Her report revealed serious shortcomings in the city’s efforts to provide adequate services for minority patients with tuberculosis and led to the formation of the Harlem Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association. She was immediately named executive secretary of the new organization and spent the next 12 years working diligently to ensure that ample aid and resources were directed to minority groups suffering from the disease. The position also allowed her to form close friendships with important social and political figures within the black community. These contacts continued to serve her well after she left in 1934 to assume the post of executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). She was later named NACGN president.
The NACGN was founded in 1908 by a group of 52 black nurses headed by Adah Belle Thoms of New York. The association’s main objective was to secure full integration of black women nurses into the mainstream nursing profession. Specific goals included equal access to all hospitals and advanced-study programs, equal salaries and employment opportunities, and the right to full membership in key professional organizations, such as the American Nurses’ Association (ANA). The NACGN also sought to promote higher standards of nursing and to raise admission requirements for black nursing schools.
Although black communities in both the North and the South had established a network of hospitals and nursing schools designed to encourage black women to enter the nursing profession, black nurses—especially those in the southern United States—continued to encounter formidable obstacles in their quest for professional advancement. “The leading nurses’ organizations, the American Nurses’ Association (ANA) and the National League of Nursing Education (NLNE), refused to accept individual membership from black nurses residing in seventeen, primarily southern, states,” wrote Darlene Clark Hine in Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. “Every southern state association barred black women, thereby making the majority of black women nurses professional outcasts.”
Despite the high hopes of the NACGN’s founders, the organization’s effectiveness was greatly hindered during its first two decades by low membership, inadequate funding, and the lack of a permanent headquarters. By 1934, however, things had begun to improve. That year generous grants from the Julius Rosenwald Fund and the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation made it possible for the organization to establish a permanent headquarters in Rockefeller Center, close to all of the other major nursing organizations. The funding also allowed the NACGN to employ Estelle Massey Riddle, superintendent of nurses at the Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis and the first black nurse to receive a master’s degree in nursing education, as its president.
It was Riddle who recommended Staupers for the position of executive secretary. Together they formed a dynamic team. “Both women evinced an unwavering commitment to the advancement of black nurses and were willing to do whatever it took to achieve integration,” Hine wrote in Black Women in White. “They understood and accepted the responsibility of strengthening the NACGN while simultaneously building coalitions with sensitive and sympathetic white nursing leaders. One of them working alone could not have provided all of the skills needed to achieve these two objectives. Together, however, they were able to motivate and organize black nurses on local levels while continuing to negotiate and interact with white nurse leaders on the national front.” But by 1940, Staupers and Riddle still had not succeeded in their efforts to win unrestricted membership for qualified black nurses in the major state and national nursing organizations. Only with the outbreak of World War II did the nurses’ struggle for integration and professional recognition gain the national attention it deserved.
Fully aware of the difficulties faced by former NACGN president Adah Thoms in her efforts to include black nurses in the Armed Forces Nurse Corps during World War I, Staupers set out to prevent the same thing from happening again. During wartime, public appreciation for nurses and the nursing profession increased dramatically. In order to improve economic and educational opportunities for black nurses—and, more specifically, to prove their worthiness to the white professional nursing organizations—she had to capitalize upon the positive public mood by presenting black women as competent, valued, and desirable members of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. With the help of financial contributions from a variety of philanthropic foundations, Staupers traveled thousands of miles, state to state, sharing the NACGN’s message with nurses, organization officials, and political leaders in both the black and white communities. She firmly believed that the acceptance of black nurses into the Armed Forces Nurse Corps was a critical step toward the full integration of American nursing.
Once she had persuaded military officials to admit black women nurses into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, Staupers encountered yet another obstacle: a rigid system of quotas that undermined the talent and dedication of black nurses and made a mockery of the NACGN’s efforts to achieve integration. All along she had used the power of the press to her advantage, sending letters and NACGN press releases to leading black newspapers in order to keep them abreast of new developments. When, in January of 1941, U.S. Army Surgeon General James C. Magee announced that the army would recruit a total of 56 nurses to serve in the predominantly black military hospitals at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Camp Livingston, Louisiana, she was quick to point out that it was the NACGN that had forced the army’s decision. Yet she was fully aware of the negative implications of the quota.
Staupers wasted no time in publicizing what she and the other members of the National Defense Council’s Subcommittee on Negro Health viewed as little more than a half-hearted response to the serious problem of racial discrimination. The U.S. Navy, however, was even less enlightened than the army. It refused to admit black women into its nursing corps for fear they could not perform the many duties expected of them.
By 1943 the army had raised its quota of black nurses from 56 to 160. However, many of the new recruits were sent overseas to perform the dubious—and largely invisible— task of caring for German prisoners of war rather than nursing sick and wounded American soldiers at home. Around the same time, the navy announced that it would consider inducting black women into its nursing corps. But progress was slow, and Staupers’s patience was fading.
Then, in 1944—a presidential election year—she solicited the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. During their November meeting, arranged with the help of political contacts, Staupers described the troubled relationship between the armed forces and black nurses. In addition to questioning the army’s policy of using black nurses to care for the nation’s enemies, she pointed out the hypocrisy of assigning as many as 82 nurses to serve only 150 patients at the exclusively black Station Hospital at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, at a time when nurses were in such demand that the army was considering instituting a draft.
Two months later, when newly appointed Army Surgeon General Norman T. Kirk announced the draft proposal to a group of nurses, politicians, and private citizens gathered at a hotel in New York City, Staupers did not hesitate to make her feelings known. According to Hine in Black Women in White, she confronted Kirk with the angry words, “If nurses are needed so desperately, why isn’t the Army using colored nurses?’
Staupers’s plea for an end to restrictive quotas gained new strength and public support several days later, when, during a national radio broadcast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his desire to enact nurse draft legislation on the grounds that not enough nurses had volunteered their services. The First Lady had used her own power in an attempt to influence top officials in the War Department, but the president’s comments suggested that he had completely underestimated the public’s dissatisfaction with the military’s hypocrisy. The American military claimed that it fought for freedom and democracy, yet the U.S. Army and Navy were actually perpetuating discriminatory practices by failing to utilize the services of well-qualified black nurses who were willing to join their ranks.
Finally Staupers’s opportunity had arrived. Immediately following Roosevelt’s broadcast, she contacted black and white nurses, women’s groups, and political leaders throughout the country and urged them to send letters and telegrams to the president and his advisers protesting the military’s discriminatory policies. Organizations as diverse as the NAACP, the Catholic Interracial Council, the National Nursing Council for War Services, the American Civil Liberties Union, the YWCA, and the American Federation of Labor rallied in support of the NACGN and for an end to the exclusion and segregation of black nurses. The huge public outcry quicly paid off. On January 20, 1945, Norman T. Kirk declared that all qualified nurses, regardless or race, would be allowed to serve in the Army Nurse Corps. Kirk’s announcement was followed five days later by a statement from Navy Rear Admiral W. J. C. Agnew announcing that black women would be eligible to serve in the Navy Nurse Corps from that time on. Not long afterwards, the War Department announced an end to the entire nurse-draft scheme.
Although the integration of the Armed Forces Nurse Corps was an important victory for Staupers and the NACGN, it was not until 1948 that the House of Delegates of the American Nurses’ Association opened its doors to black members. That same year the organization named a black woman nurse to the post of assistant executive secretary and elected former NACGN president
Estelle Massey Riddle to its board of directors. The organization also moved to grant individual membership to black nurses excluded from nursing associations in eight southern states.
By 1950 it had become evident to Staupers and the other leaders of the NACGN that the organization had achieved its goals and could now be dissolved. According to Hine in Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Staupers was pleased to announce in a press release dated January 26, 1951, that the NACGN was, as far as she knew, the first major black organization to discontinue its work “because it feels that its program of activities is no longer necessary.”
In 1951 Mabel Keaton Staupers received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, a prestigious award for outstanding achievement among people of color. In presenting the award during the association’s 42nd annual convention in Atlanta, novelist Lillian Smith praised Staupers for, according to the New York Times,” spearheading the successful movement to integrate Negro nurses into American life as equals.” Ten years later Staupers published an autobiography, No Time for Prejudice: A Story of the Integration of Negroes in Nursing in the United States, in which she described her 30-year battle to end discrimination against black nurses both within the military and in civilian life.
Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, edited by John Hope Franklin and August Meier, University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 241-56.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950, Indiana University Press, 1989.
Staupers, Mabel Keaton, No Time for Prejudice: A Story of the Integration of Negroes in Nursing in the United States, Macmillan, 1961.
Jet, October 23, 1989, p. 16.
Journal of the National Medical Association, March 1969, vol. 61, pp. 198-99.
New York Times, June 30, 1951, p. 17; October 6, 1989, p. B24.
—Caroline B. D. Smith