Member of special sisterhood
Bermudian-born New Yorker Gladys Simmons Barney is an active 94-year-old who realised her dream of becoming a nurse in an era when career options for black women were limited.
This despite King Edward VII Memorial Hospital being off limits to black nurses, both as trainees and fully fledged registered nurses, until 1958.
All of which makes Gladys Barney a member of a special sisterhood: she is a graduate of the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home nursing school.
She is one of a sizeable number of black women who trained at the nursing school on Happy Valley Road, Pembroke, between 1936 and 1956.
Mrs Barney was one of five who graduated in 1947. Of the five, only she and Grace deShield Washington are still living. The others were Muriel Basden, Barbara Telford Joyiens and Maisie Pearman Woolridge.
Mrs Barney moved to New York upon her marriage to American George Barney in 1951. Mrs Washington spent her career in Bermuda, working first at the United States base hospital and then at St Brendan's Hospital, now the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute.
On a recent visit to Bermuda, Mrs Barney agreed to be interviewed by The Royal Gazette.
Mrs Barney's story began on January 3, 1924, where she was born to Annie and Victor Simmons, of Government Gate, Pembroke.
She was the third in a family of 12 — six boys and six girls. She attended The Central School, but was unable to move on to high school because her family could not afford the fees.
However, she always wanted to be a nurse and her mother was the one who made it happen.
“Daddy felt girls didn't need to do anything — just get married and have babies,” she said.
Had she gone straight from Central into the workplace, her choices were “working in the hotel as a maid or in somebody's kitchen”.
So her mother kept her at home, where she helped out with household chores. She also assisted a neighbourhood midwife with deliveries and postnatal care.
Mrs Barney said she was grateful to Central School teacher Victor Outerbridge, who tutored her and other students after school to prepare them for the Cambridge Junior Certificate exam.
In 1943, after passing an entrance exam, she moved into the nursing home's dormitory, where she would live for the next three years.
East End resident Grace deShield Washington was her roommate. The two became lifelong friends.
Mrs Barney has vivid memories of her nursing school days. As money was in short supply, her godmother purchased fabric for her mother to make uniforms.
“We worked for three months without pay,” she said. “Then we were paid 30 shillings a month.”
It was not a lot of money, but, as she explained: “If you want to do something, you have to sacrifice and follow your dream.”
The nurses worked 12-hour shifts, caring for patients with strokes, diabetes “and other ailments”, as well as the terminally ill. The hospital was small, only 20 beds, compared with KEMH's 138 beds, but it had a maternity ward and an operating room.
She described the training as “thoroughly British”.
The instructors were matrons Mabel White and Mabel Crawford, assistant matron Eula Harford, physicians Leon Williams, V.O.D. King and others.
The Cottage Hospital Nursing Home began its existence as the Bermuda Nursing Home. It opened in 1905, the brainchild of a physician, archdeacon and an educator, who reached out to various lodges or friendly societies for financial support.
The lodges then assumed responsibility for running the home. According to J. Randolph Williams in his book CARE — 100 Years of Hospital Care in Bermuda, the aim was to provide medical and nursing care in Pembroke, the island's most densely populated parish and its poorest.
The Cottage Hospital had opened in 1894 as Bermuda's first civilian hospital. When it was replaced by KEMH in 1920, the nursing home moved into the Cottage Hospital building and was renamed the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home.
In 1936, the lodges received a grant from the Government to open a training school for black nurses at the home.
Sylvia Richardson, after whom the seniors' home in St George's is named, became the first graduate of the school. Ms Richardson, who became the first black nurse to work in Bermuda's public health system, had begun her training at the Bermuda Nursing Home. Other graduates included Iris Davis, who became the second black to work in public health and Leonie Harford, who became the first black district nurse.
When Mrs Barney and her classmates graduated in 1947, Sir Ralph Leatham, the Governor, presented them with their diplomas. The event was described at the time as “historic” because it was the first time that a governor had performed that role at the nursing home, Randolph Williams wrote.
Mrs Barney recalled that wealthy Jamaican-born businessman James “Dick” Richards paid for their graduation ball. The five newly minted graduates were sent by the Government to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, New York, for an additional year's training.
Back in Bermuda in 1948, with few openings at the nursing home and none at KEMH, Mrs Barney became a private duty nurse, caring primarily for wealthy white Bermudians in their homes.
She moved back into the family home and rode a pedal cycle to get to her different jobs. The pay was good and for vacations, she would take trips to New York on Pan Am flying boats. On one of those trips, she met her husband.
“I got married and that was it,” she said.
George Barney was a truck driver for a plumbing supply firm, but later started his own business. They set up home in Corona, in Queens, later moving to Cambria Heights. The Barneys had three children, George Jr, Mitchell and Anthony. Mrs Barney worked full time, eight years at Lincoln Hospital, and 28 years at Flushing Medical Centre in Queens.
Mrs Barney would learn that her RN credentials, which had served her well in Bermuda, were not recognised in the US. The New York State licensing body for nurses assessed her credentials as being equivalent to a licensed practical nurse.
Working full time with three sons to raise gave her little time to upgrade, so she worked as an LPN her whole career. The work was satisfying, the pay was good and she was put in charge of wards at Lincoln, such was the quality of the training she had received in Bermuda.
“I was an LPN doing RN's work,” she said.
Her family in Bermuda were always supportive. Her sons would spend their summers in Bermuda and after her husband died at age 53, her mother would fly to New York and stay with her for weeks at a time to lend a hand.
“It wasn't easy taking care of three sons,” she said.
Mrs Barney retired in 1987, proud that the training she received at her nursing school stood her in good stead. She expressed no bitterness about the racial barriers put in her way at the start of her career.
“No, because God was good because I had work,” she said.
In May 2017, she and Mrs Washington were recognised for their contributions to nursing at the 50th anniversary dinner of the Bermuda Nurses Association.
Back in Bermuda last month, she attended Cup Match and spent time renewing family ties. She has three surviving siblings, Grace Simmons and Bernet Simmons, of Bermuda, and Iliss Benjamin, who resides in the US.
She intends to return to Bermuda as long as she is able.
“It's like a big old garden,” she said. “I'll come back every year as long as God gives me health and strength.”
It played a crucial role in Bermuda’s healthcare system, but the Cottage Hospital building is now unoccupied and, to quote a line in the Bermuda National Trust’s Architectural Heritage Series book Pembroke, “in some disrepair”.
The Cottage Hospital was Bermuda’s first civilian hospital. Eldon Harvey was largely responsible for its existence.
When he first proposed a hospital in 1885, he encountered much public resistance, according to author J. Randolph Williams. Construction did not begin until 1893. The hospital opened in 1894 with six male beds and two female beds.
Funding came from public donations. Among those who supported the cause was author and regular Bermuda visitor Mark Twain. When the friendly societies took over the Cottage Hospital building in 1920 after King Edward VII Memorial Hospital came on line, they operated it as a nursing home for elderly lodge members.
A likely reason for the establishment of a nursing school in 1936 was a decision by Lincoln Hospital in New York to discontinue training foreign nurses.
Alice Scott of Somerset and Caro Spencer Wilson of Smith’s were among an earlier generation of Bermuda nurses who had trained at Lincoln.
It is not known how many nurses the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home turned out, but there is no doubt it gave a sizeable number of black Bermudian nurses their start.
When it closed in 1956, Matron Mabel Crawford retired and two nurses who worked under her, Leonie Harford and Muriel Basden, a classmate of Gladys Barney’s, went to Britain to begin training to become state registered nurses.
Ms Harford later became Bermuda’s first black district nurse. Ms Basden, who retired to Bermuda and died last year, spent most of her career working in nursing in the UK. With its closure in 1956, the Cottage Hospital Nursing Home became part of KEMH.
In 1958, British-trained Barbara Davis Wade became the first black nurse to join KEMH’s nursing staff. KEMH also opened up its whites-only nursing school to black students.
The Cottage Hospital building was used for a variety of purposes until 1965, when it became the headquarters of the Bermuda Prison Service. The renamed Department of Corrections moved out in 2011 and the building has been unoccupied since then.
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