Black Nurses Blazed a Trail To Keep Us Healthy

By Tonya Jameson

In Charlotte, we often recognize trailblazers in government, education and businesses, but we’ve paid little attention to the men and women who worked to keep poor Black people healthy.

This month, we’re taking time to recognize Thereasea Elder and Madie Smith-Moore, pioneers in public health.

“I just want to give a huge thank you. They’ve been quiet giants that really paved the way for many of us to be competent professionals to make a difference in public health,” said Cheryl Emanuel, senior health manager at the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

Emanuel is the architect behind the department’s nationally recognized Village HeartBEAT, a faith-based community engagement program to reduce high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease among African Americans.

Affectionately known in the community as T.D., Elder may be familiar to some readers. She’s worked with Emanuel on Village HeartBEAT, and she’s a vocal community leader about health and education. She has a park named after her in northwest Charlotte.

Elder, now 92, integrated the public nursing profession when she worked for the health department from 1962 – 1989. Before joining the health department, Elder worked at the white-only Charlotte Memorial Hospital while in high school, doing minor tasks such as filling salt shakers for the kitchen. Her career started in earnest when she worked at the all-Black hospital Good Samaritan before later joining the Health Department as a nurse.

Back then, nurses were assigned to regions, and they took care of families and schools in their areas. Elder made home visits and conducted screenings in school. Initially, she was assigned to the Fourth Ward area, which was predominately Black.

In the ‘60s, she was part of a pilot program to integrate Charlotte’s community health program in the Paw Creek area, near the airport. She described it as “Klan country” in an interview. Elder faced racism from fellow nurses and the white patients she helped. Some of her fellow nurses wouldn’t accept her as a peer, which lead to arguments at work. Some of her white patients treated her like she was a maid and asked her to take out the trash. Despite these obstacles, Elder convinced other Black women to become public nurses.

Madie Smith-Moore joined the health department while Elder worked there. While Elder earned a reputation for speaking out, Smith-Moore quietly fought her battles. After also starting her nursing career in the kitchen, Smith-Moore would eventually rise through the ranks to become the first Black public health supervisor in Mecklenburg County.

“It was Miss Madie’s leadership that began to open up the door for other African Americans to believe they should also apply in leadership roles,” Emanuel said. “She coached and mentored other African American women in the system.”

Smith-Moore, 89, like Elder entered nursing by starting in the diet kitchen at Charlotte Memorial when she was a teen. Her supervisors described her as swift of mind and feet, she said in a phone interview. Smith-Moore said working in the kitchen taught her about vegetables and fruit and how to eat a healthier diet.

Smith-Moore received her bachelor of science at St. Augustine. After college, Smith-Moore taught nursing arts at Good Samaritan, but she wanted to be a nurse. Back then, she said, Black nurses couldn’t get a job at the health department unless another Black nurse died or retired. So, she got a job as a nurse in the mid ’50s, but she was assigned to Monroe. Once a Black nurse in Mecklenburg County died, Smith-Moore transferred to Charlotte.

Smith-Moore was the only nurse with a B.S., but unlike the other nurses on staff, she did not have any experience in public health. The health department sent her to Duke University for training. Smith-Moore soared, because she volunteered to complete assignments and did what needed to be done.

She shared information about the health department’s services at PTA meetings and community events. Smith-Moore was one of the first nurses in an integrated group to visit and work in schools that were predominately white in the early ’70s. She continued to take on more responsibility, and became the de facto program chief at the department’s clinic in Huntersville. Smith-Moore never received the title or compensation of a program chief, but she performed the duties that accompanied that title.

“You often don’t get the recognition,” said Jacqueline Glenn, retired health department director of nursing. “It’s unfortunate, but that still goes on.”

Smith-Moore added, “There were attempts to sabotage. I had to keep cool. There were a lot of challenges, and I just always tried to keep God first.”

Her level head opened the door for other Black nurses to rise through the ranks. She encouraged young nurses to pursue graduate degrees so they could get promotions that weren’t available to her. Glenn was one of those nurses that Smith-Moore pushed.

“She was an excellent, excellent role mode,” Glenn said.

Glenn is also a role model. In 2017, she was demoted after ordering her staff to report that 185 women had not been notified of their risk for cervical cancer following abnormal Pap smears.

Glenn and so many other women who were inspired and mentored by Elder and Smith-Moore are now the guardians of public health. We all owe a debt to the two public nurses who blazed a trail to keep the community’s most vulnerable healthy.