In 2016, a statue of Jamaican-born nurse and businesswoman Mary Seacole was erected outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Seacole’s contribution to the war effort in the Crimea and to British life is well-known. Yet, the tribute – the first statue of a named Black woman in the UK – gathered vocal opposition from The Nightingale Society, which assembled to oppose the decision and “defend” Florence Nightingale’s reputation as Britain’s premier nurse. In essence, its members do not view Seacole as a “proper” nurse.
The opposition speaks to a persistently narrow view of the history of nursing. Nursing has been expansive, encompassing many forms of work, knowledge, and experience. It has been practiced in many settings. It has also been racialized, as well as gendered, work. In numerous historical contexts, women of color have experienced barriers to opportunities, inclusion, and advancement in nursing, and at the same time, have performed the bulk of nursing work and played key roles in developing nursing knowledge and practices. These complexities in the history of nursing are made especially clear by centering enslaved African American women. Indeed, while Seacole and Nightingale were in Crimea, around four million African Americans were enslaved in the American South. They labored in every capacity imaginable, including as nurses.