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Grace Washington (1924-2023): ‘a great believer in promoting nursing as a profession’

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Millicent Grace deShield Washington

Millicent Grace deShield Washington, was one of the last of the generation of Black Bermudian nurses who trained at the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home.

Mrs Washington, who passed away at her daughter’s residence on February 1, would have been 99 years old yesterday.

She was among the group of Black Bermudian women who trained at the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home on Happy Valley Road, Pembroke, between 1936 and 1956.

In the segregated Bermuda of the time, it was the only option available for Black Bermudian nurse trainees as King Edward VII Memorial Hospital had a Whites-only policy for nursing students and staff.

Graduation Day 1947: Grace Washington (standing in middle) with fellow graduates from left: Grace Simmons Barney, Barbara Telford Joyiens, Maisie Pearman Woolridge and Muriel Basden. In the front row are matrons Mabel Crawford, Mabel White, Governor Ralph Leatham and assistant matron Eulah Harford. (Photograph by the Hill Studio. courtesy of Dr June Hill)

A daughter of the Reverend John deShield and Arabelle Grace (Burchall) deShield, she was born in Warwick and raised in St David’s, then St George’s. A descendant of a family of whalers from Warwick, she was a cousin of Myrtle Edness, who died last month at the age of 108.

Mrs Washington attended St David’s School and East End School. Her first introduction to nursing came through US naval base entities established in the East End in the 1940s. She took first aid courses with the American Red Cross and a course in basic nursing at Fort Bell in St George’s.

In 1944, Mrs Washington entered the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home. It was a 20-bed institution in comparison with the much larger and better equipped KEMH. The nursing home received a government grant, with additional financial support coming from Friendly Societies.

The nursing programme, run by the formidable and fearsome matron Mabel White, was tough. Students, who lived on site in dorms, worked long hours and cared for a range of patients, from maternity cases to the chronically ill.

Mrs Washington and her four fellow classmates made it through, graduating in 1947. The graduation ceremony, which was covered by The Royal Gazette and The Recorder, was the first to be attended by a governor, medical superintendent Leon Williams noted. He used the opportunity to call for better facilities and more funding for the Cottage.

Like many of its graduates, Mrs Washington did an additional year at the Lincoln Hospital School for Nurses in the Bronx, New York. In 1949, she was admitted to the Bermuda’s Midwives Register.

She worked as a private duty nurse and midwife, caring for adults and delivering babies in the St George’s area. She later worked at the US Base Hospital in St David’s. In 1972, she joined the staff of St Brendan’s Hospital (now MAWI) where she remained until her retirement.

Mrs Washington married Eugene Washington Sr, a machinist, in 1949. She was the mother of Eugene Jr and Sharon Swan, who followed her into the nursing profession.

In 1988, both women were honoured by the Bermuda Nursing Association (formerly the Bermuda Registered Nurses Association). Sharon Swan was Nurse of the Year and Mrs Washington received a citation.

Mrs Swan said that her mother “was a great believer in promoting nursing as a profession”.

During her years at St Brendan’s, she was very supportive of nurses’ aides, encouraging them to further their education overseas and remaining in contact with them when they did. Continuing education was also very important. She took courses locally and internationally over the years to remain current.

She also remained active after her retirement, as a volunteer at MAWI, the Bermuda Red Cross and as an executive member of Star, the charity for people with HIV.

Mrs Washington and Mrs Swan were featured in the documentary Healthcare Heroines — Black Bermudian Nurses and the Struggle for Equality, which was produced by the Department of Culture last year.

Speaking on behalf of Mrs Washington in the film, Mrs Swan said it galled her mother to not be able to work at KEMH, which remained off limits to Black nurses until 1958.

“She used to get quite worked up about it,” Mrs Swan said. “So much so that even after racial barriers had lifted, she refused to volunteer at KEMH’s blood bank or as a Pink Lady.“

Still, she contributed much to the development of nursing in Bermuda. She was involved in efforts to amalgamate the black and white nursing associations to become the Bermuda Nurses Association in 1967.

Mrs Washington was predeceased by her husband and their son. Besides her daughter, she is survived by grandsons Gerry and Dubé Swan and son-in-law Gerry Swan.

Mrs Washington’s death leaves just two surviving graduates of the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home: Gladys Simmons Barney, of Queen’s, New York, and Sylvia Emery Edwards, of New Jersey.

Mrs Barney and Mrs Washington met as student nurses and became lifelong friends.

Mrs Washington’s funeral was held at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in St George’s.

Meredith Ebbin, a veteran journalist, was principal researcher for the film Healthcare Heroines — Black Bermudian Nurses and the Struggle for Equality

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Published February 20, 2023 at 7:52 am (Updated February 20, 2023 at 11:50 am)

Grace Washington (1924-2023): ‘a great believer in promoting nursing as a profession’

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