Working, Diaspora, and Pandemics

Prior to the deadly Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and those many diseases that impacted African Diasporic communities across time and space like cholera, Ebola, malaria, smallpox, and now COVID-19; anti-Black racism was and continues to be a threat to Black lives. Black laborers began working in organizations guided by racial segregation even while helping all of their country's residents. From Black Mercy Hospital nurses in Philadelphia in the early 20th century to Brazil Catholic priest on the front line, people of African descent have worked even in pandemics. The following images will offer a glimpse in the life of those working throughout Diaspora in positions considered essential. Global Black labor is intertwined with racism and is sadly familiar from Philadelphia to Brazil.

Visiting Nurse Society of Philadelphia Letter to Local Newspaper Detailing their Efforts During the Influenza Pandemic (Philadelphia, 1918). Visiting Nursing Society of Philadelphia records. Courtesy of Barbara Bates Center for The Study of The History of Nursing, School of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania.

The Visiting Nurse Society was founded in 1886 by Helen Carnan Jenks. In the 19th century, they provided care to the sick from the safety of their homes, particularly in South Philadelphia where immigrants and African-American low income workers and their families resided. Their focus included maternity, infant care, and educating the public to prevent the spread of other infectious diseases. This organization was one of a few to allow African American nurses to join.

During the 1918 influenza epidemic, the Visiting Nurse Society was crucial in providing health care to the community. This letter to the local newspaper details their efforts during this epidemic.

Class of 1929 Attending Lecture (Philadelphia, 1929). Mercy-Douglass Hospital Records. Barbara Bates Center for The Study of The History of Nursing, School of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania

In 1895, Dr. Nathan Mossell established the Douglass Hospital as an opportunity to provide African American physicians and nurses proper training; it was the first Black nurse training school in Philadelphia. Due to financial issues in 1940, it would merge institutions and become the Mercy-Douglas Hospital. This photograph of an all African American women nursing class and many more like it provides important documentation of the Black experience in nursing.

Ismail Ferdous, Mary Bolela, a Nurse of Mississippi (New York, 2020).

Mary Bolela volunteered to care for COVID-19 patients in New York. She bought sodas for her colleagues while on break. In response to the increasing number of patients seeking care for COVID-19, NYC Health and Hospitals opened a temporary “acute-care” hospital on Roosevelt Island that expanded the system’s bed capacity by 350 additional beds and welcomed 100 staff members, many of them volunteers to accommodate the needs of those patients to come.

De Middel Christina, Father Ednaldo Cardoso (Brazil, 2020).

Father Ednaldo Cardoso is the head priest of one of the closed Catholic churches in Itacare, Brazil. Due to its closure because of COVID-19, he has been offering spiritual advice via WhatsApp while still tending to the needs of the church. This is a major contrast to how house of worships in America have handled the quarantine regulations. There have been several cases of pastors in America have either contracted the virus and have expired or have been fined for violations for stay at home orders.