Filmmaker to share story of African American nurses who treated TB when no one else would

VCU School of Nursing will host ‘The Black Angels’ screening and discussion with producer Denetra Hampton.

In 1940, more than 300 New Yorkers were dying every month from tuberculosis, a disease that killed over 180,000 Americans from 1939-41. During that decade – a time when African American nurses rarely treated white patients due to segregation – a group of nurses called the Black Angels stepped forward to treat patients with the disease, which had no cure, after white nurses refused.

Poster for The Black Angels: A Nurse's Story"
VCU School of Nursing will host a screening and discussion of "The Black Angels: A Nurse's Story" with the film's producer Denetra Hampton. (Courtesy of Denetra Hampton)

Nearly 90 years later, film producer and nurse Denetra Hampton is sharing the untold history of these African American nurses through screenings of her mini-documentary “The Black Angels: A Nurse’s Story.” The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing will host Hampton for a screening and discussion of the film in celebration of Black History Month.

The screening will take place at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, in the VCU School of Nursing, Room 1013. Lunch will be provided. Those interested in attending the screening and lunch should register by Feb. 7 by emailing Catherine West at westc5@vcu.edu.

VCU’s School of Nursing shares a history with the St. Philip School of Nursing, one of 36 U.S. schools that trained African American nurses when it opened in 1920. Another was the Hampton Institute of Virginia, now Hampton University, where filmmaker Denetra Hampton earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing.

Hampton, a writer, producer, Navy veteran and nurse, founded For Nurses By Nurses Productions, the production company that created “The Black Angels.” Her team tells stories through diverse filmmaking about the role nurse-scientists play in bridging gaps in access to health care.

VCU News asked Hampton about the documentary and what the Black Angels’ story means today.

Tell me about the Black Angels. Who were these nurses?

The Black Angels were African American nurses who risked their lives to care for patients with tuberculosis, when there was no cure, at a time and place where white nurses refused. The story is hailed out of Staten Island, New York, at Seaview Hospital. Their heroic and courageous act was precedent to their contributions to medicine and science.

Why is telling the story of the Black Angels important?

Nursing has been around for over 100 years. However, the role of the African American nurse and their contributions have been unrecognized. The Black Angels sacrificed their lives so that others may have hope to live. And it was this compassion and loyalty to the profession of nursing that we owe them.

Denetra Hampton.
Denetra Hampton

As you were working on the film, was there anything you learned about the Black Angels that struck you?

One thing in particular is that they cared for all mankind. Seaview Hospital was not segregated. I often run into this misconception as I continue to screen the film. Although the jobs were limited to African American nurses, the care was not.

As a nurse, what has it meant to you to learn about the Black Angels and go on a tour to educate health sciences students about them?

I am honored to be trusted with the responsibility. The story is long overdue, but the responsibility of carrying it as an African American nurse is unspeakable. Our America is continually changing, and it is important that we educate our future generations about the diversity that is the fabric of who we are. The experience has been life-changing.

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