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Catholic Nursing Sisters and Brothers and Racial Justice in Mid-20th-Century America

Wall, Barbra Mann PhD, RN

doi: 10.1097/ANS.0b013e3181a3d741

This historical article considers nursing's work for social justice in the 1960s civil rights movement through the lens of religious sisters and brothers who advocated for racial equality. The article examines Catholic nurses' work with African Americans in the mid-20th century that took place amid the prevailing social conditions of poverty and racial disempowerment, conditions that were linked to serious health consequences. Historical methodology is used within the framework of “bearing witness,” a term often used in relation to the civil rights movement and one the sisters themselves employed. Two situations involving nurses in the mid-20th century are examined: the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, and the actions for racial justice in Chicago, Illinois. The thoughts and actions of Catholic sister and brother nurses in the mid-20th century are chronicled, including those few sister nurses who stepped outside their ordinary roles in an attempt to change an unjust system entirely.

University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Philadelphia.

Corresponding Author: Barbra Mann Wall, PhD, RN, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, 418 Curie Blvd, Fagin Hall, #2016, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (

Disclaimer: The views expressed in any written publication, or other media, do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Department of Health and Human Services; nor does mention by trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the US Government.

The author thanks the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, Evansville, Indiana; Alexian Brothers, Chicago, Illinois; the Sisters of St Joseph of Rochester, New York; the Chicago Historical Museum; and the Archives of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The author also acknowledges the following sources of funding: The University of Pennsylvania's University Research Foundation Grant; the Trustee Council for Penn Women Award; a Fichter Grant from the Association for the Sociology of Religion; and the American Association for the History of Nursing H15 Grant for Historical Research. Funding for this “Scholarly Works” project was also made possible by grant 1G13 IM009691-01 from the National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health (NIH), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.