The community of Charlotte, North Carolina is paying tribute to Thereasea Elder, the city’s first black nurse, who passed away at the age of 93 on Tuesday. She forever changed the face of medicine when she fought to integrate the state’s segregated public health system.
Her story is a reminder of how far we have come in terms of making the healthcare system more equitable, but there’s still more work to be done.
Growing Up in Segregated North Carolina
Throughout her life, Elder was a fierce advocate for the black community. According to public records, she was born in the city’s historically black Greenville neighborhood, along with her five siblings, born to Booker T. and Odessa Clark.
She started her career as a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital, which was segregated and only served black patients. Across the South, white patients typically had access to better quality care at “white-only” hospitals, which refused to treat black patients, even if it meant letting them succumb to their wounds or illness. In some cases, a white-only hospital would make accommodations for black patients in the basement, keeping them separate from white patients.
As David Barton Smith, a professor emeritus of healthcare management at Temple University, writes:
“There were a lot of black communities in the South that had basically no access to hospitals. Most of the black births in Mississippi were at home. The infant and maternal mortality rates were hugely different for blacks and whites because of that.”
Elder frequently encountered racism and harassment as the city’s first black nurse. She was originally hired to only care for the area’s black babies and infants, but nearly a decade later when state-sponsored racism became illegal, she began taking care of white families as well.
The passage of Medicare during the Civil Rights Movement forever changed the face of medicine. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, hospitals could no longer discriminate against patients based on the color of their skin, which, in theory, essentially desegregated every hospital in the country overnight.
Elder went on to join the Mecklenburg County Health Department as its first and only black nurse. She studied at some of the nation’s premiere historically black universities, including Johnson C. Smith University, the U.S. Cadet Nursing Program, and the Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in Durham. She also studied pediatrics at Howard University’s Freeman Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Throughout her long career, Elder was instrumental in and out of the hospital. She advocated for the black community by registering voters and preserving the city’s black history. She also volunteered with numerous local organizations, including the Greenville Historical Association, the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and the American Red Cross’s Greater Carolinas Chapter.
Losing a Legend
Elder’s friends, neighbors, and colleagues have been singing her praises since she passed away earlier this week.
Elder’s longtime friend Sally Robinson says her passion was history. “She is probably one of the strongest, most determined and enthusiastic women I’ve ever known. And I choose those words carefully,” Robinson said. “She had a big heart and reached and loved so many people.”
Keith Cradle says he became a friend of Elder’s later in life. They both attended Second Calvary Baptist and often sat next to each other on Sundays. However, he says he only recently found out about her story, but quickly recognized her deep empathy for others and wisdom.
“The things she saw and endured, her faith is what carried her through,” he said.
Cradle says Elder was always one of the first people to appear in church, and, if he should ever miss a week, Elder would call him to make sure that he was all right.
“She just understood how [the] community worked and how you pay that forward,” he said. “That love and support — that was just who she was.”
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham honored her passing with a post on Facebook, writing, “As a nurse she suffered many injustices after 1970. I remember hearing her stories. She was a lovely woman and always so positive and encouraging to women. She might have been petite, but we all know she was a giant in our community.”
Representative Alma S. Adams, who represents the Charlotte community, wrote on Twitter:
“She was a remarkable warrior, and a kind and gentle soul who was relentless in her commitment to serve our community. I was pleased to have had the opportunity to get to know Mrs. Elder and will truly miss her. I am saddened by her passing & praying for her family’s comfort.”