Alice L. Thompson Waytes

 

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Adah Belle Samuels Thoms, 1870-1943

 

By: Barbara Dobschuetz, Independent Scholar, Chicago, Illinois

A pioneer leader in Black nursing and nursing administration, Adah Belle Samuels Thoms's remarkable career began in the early part of the twentieth century. At a time when African Americans sought to acquire skills for economic advancement, they were met with entrenched racism and forced subordination that denied them educational and practical training opportunities. Undaunted by the discrimination she faced first in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia and then later in New York City, Samuels became one of the first graduates of the Lincoln Training School for Black Nurses. Her leadership as eventual director of the Lincoln Nursing school contributed to the building of a permanent institutional infrastructure for black nursing. Nursing leaders of both races found themselves by 1900 in "separate but parallel quests for professional status, greater autonomy, and power." In order to win recognition for her nursing students, Thoms embarked on a "distinct process of professionalization."

Samuels believed Black Graduate nurses were able meet the same level of professionalism as their white counterparts and demanded that Black nurses be accepted as members to the national nursing organizations such as the Red Cross and American Nurses Association. As President of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), Thoms campaigned beginning in 1917 for the acceptance of Black nurses to become members of the American Red Cross and the United States Army Nurse Corps during World War I. In 1928, she authored Pathfinders, the first book ever to record the history of the Black nursing experience. Her groundwork achievements for black nurses led to facilitating their eventual membership in the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the National Organization for Public Health Nursing.

Adah Belle Samuels was born January 12, 1870 to Harry and Minerva Samuels. She grew up in Richmond, Virginia during the early years of reconstruction following the Civil War. It was thought she had one sibling. As part of the first generation of African Americans emerging from slavery, the Samuels family valued education as a means to acquiring jobs in the new free labor economy and preserving their civil rights. Education became a necessity for all of Richmond's citizens, both black and white, as they began to rebuild after the Civil War. The Freedmen Schools, offered primary education for children of both races, albeit often in segregated facilities. The Richmond educational leadership found that black children learned more effectively with black teachers, leading them to hire a small number of Black teachers. These newly minted teachers inspired students like Adah Belle to pursue further training in order to become a teacher. Richmond Normal was the only school preparing black teachers in the 1880s when Samuels would have come of age. Richmond Normal was the equivalent of a technical school. By 1890, however, the climate for black teachers in Richmond had become controversial and jobs became scarce due to conservative whites taking back control of the educational levers of power in Richmond and in Virginia as a whole.

Jim Crow measures by 1890 became the law of the land and segregation was the rule of city life. This volatile political climate and closing opportunities for blacks may have contributed to Samuels leaving Richmond for New York to further her education and teacher training. She briefly attended Cooper Union in 1893 and studied elocution and public speaking. After living in New York City for a few years, Samuels entered a program for nursing at the Women's Infirmary and School of Therapeutic Massage in New York. By 1900,

Samuels graduated from the Women's Infirmary program and began work in New York City and later at St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. By 1903, she realized her training was not sufficient for the type of professional nursing she desired and returned to New York and entered the graduate nursing program at Lincoln Hospital and Home. Only one year before the Lincoln Hospital acquired the Colored Home and Hospital, making it one of the largest hospitals for Blacks in New York City.

Samuels excelled at nursing and upon graduation in 1905, Lincoln Hospital hired her for their operating room and quickly made her superintendent of the surgical division. In 1906, Samuels became an assistant superintendent of all nurses at Lincoln Hospital, a position she held for eighteen years. Samuels was unable to be appointed to that of full superintendent due to discrimination that prevented Blacks from holding senior positions of administrative leadership. Because Lincoln was controlled by a white board, major administrative positions were believed to be beyond African Americans' capabilities. This double standard was typical of this period as Black nurses and doctors were denied admission to the best schools for medical training. It was not surprising that this policy of exclusion from access to quality medical training prevented blacks from acquiring better jobs and advancing into managerial positions.

Alarmed by the additional racist burden that faced Black Nurses eager to earn recognition as competent professionals, Samuels joined Martha M. Franklin in August of 1908 and called for a national organization that was sympathetic to the needs of Black graduate nurses. Their initial goals were aimed at leadership development, higher administrative and educational standards, and securing cooperation and contact with nursing leaders of the world. Samuels and the alumnae organization she headed at the Lincoln School of Nursing arranged for black nurses throughout the country to join Franklin and herself to meet at St. Marks AME Church in New York City.

Fifty-two graduates attended the initial meeting and outlined the goals of the new organization they named, "The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses" (NACGN). Membership would be contingent upon graduation from a recognized nursing school. Similar to other African American institutions such as Black churches, associations, clubs, and settlement houses, NACGN provided a space where a culture of resistance flourished and African American women played significant leadership roles.

NACGN raised its level of nursing expertise and knowledge for its membership through cooperation and contact with leading nurses from around the world. One of the early international nursing conferences to which NACGN sent representatives included the International Council of Nurses that met in Cologne, Germany in 1912. Thoms (who was now married) and two other Black delegates from the United States were held in high esteem by the European nurses and physicians who attended. The International Council of Nurses was one of many organizations with links to the international suffrage movement. The NACGN had a complicated relationship with domestic white suffrage and nursing organizations. It did not support suffrage directly. Black nurses were prevented because of race to join major nursing organizations such as the American Nurses Association or the National League of Nursing Education. This professional exclusion and racist attitudes only added to the challenges beyond gender or suffrage that faced the Black nursing membership of NACGN.

Samuels's life outside of her nursing profession revealed an active religious life as a member of St. Marks AME Church whose pastor at the time was Rev. William H. Brooks. St. Marks was a large church in Harlem and actively engaged in many social gospel efforts including its pastor being one of the founding members of the NAACP and the National Urban League. During this period, Samuels married Dr. Joseph William Thoms in September 1910.

Little information can be found on him professionally but their marriage license was recorded in the New York City Marriage Records. It is not clear when the marriage ended. Thoms continued to use her married name throughout her career.

Beginning in 1916, Adah Samuels Thoms joined the National Urban League and the NAACP as a way to enlist additional support for her social reform efforts and confront the injustice she saw in the way health care was delivered to the Black community. Her first-hand knowledge of the conditions within Black hospitals and the obstacles Black nurses faced within highly segregated institutional structures informed her activism and contributed to her sense of urgency for social justice reforms. Segregated conditions that separated Blacks within white hospitals or relegated them to special "blacks only hospitals" did not necessarily make for quality medical care or healthy working conditions. Integration within already functioning institutions was an obvious solution. NACGN argued "sickness was a personal problem affecting the human race, not a racial problem afflicting one individual race." Furthermore, Thoms and NACGN challenged the prevailing view of Black nurses which argued that they were only capable of caring for Black patients and that they were happier within Black hospitals or schools of nursing. Thoms argued that "This notion was self-serving and was designed to perpetuate segregation and the status quo."

Despite discrimination within the profession, Thoms creatively used her position at the Lincoln School of nursing and as treasurer of NACGN as a platform to create a six-month post-graduate program for nurses which she announced at the 1913 annual meeting of NACGN. She promoted this program in various nursing journals, giving it high visibility. She followed this program with a course for public health nursing at Lincoln that was added to the school's basic nursing program. To solidify Lincoln's public health nursing program, Thoms developed a

relationship with nursing settlement leader, Lillian Wald of the Henry Street Settlement. Wald was the leading advocate for public health and visiting nurse services. Wald introduced Thoms to Jane Hitchcock of the Henry Street Settlement, who taught a course on public health nursing. Thoms in her own constant quest for new nursing skills and ideas took the first course along with her pupils.

Thoms faced her biggest challenge in her quest for Black nursing professional recognition during WWI when she sought to enlist Black nurses following the Army's call for medical personnel. While 21,000 women served in the Army Nurse Corps only half of these women served overseas. "The army's ambivalence about their formal role within the military and status plagued nurses and hindered their effectiveness." The nurses who did serve were largely white and middle-class. Black nurses faced a "triple index of inferiority" and were rejected from foreign assignment. Black nurses continued to register with the Red Cross and in large numbers, but when they were not being called, Thoms took it upon herself to organize a separate corps for black nurses. Beginning in 1917, Thoms founded the Blue Circle Nurse Corps as a clearing house for black nurses who would work in local communities. She sought the aid of The Circle of Negro War Relief, a health and welfare organization that provided assistance to impoverished African American families in rural, Southern communities. Thoms envisioned that the Circle of Negro War Relief would fund the salaries for the Blue Circle Nurses who would be sent into the community while also providing a national clearing house for Black Nurses. The Blue Circle Nurses was a further example of Thoms's belief that black nurses had to be their own "effective agents of social and professional change." As historian Darlene Clark Hine concluded about Thoms and other leaders of her generation, "Black nurses had to create their own paths to equality."

Information about Thoms's commitment to woman suffrage is scarce but in July 1913 she attended the annual statewide meeting of the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs where that organization went on record in support of woman suffrage. Interestingly, she took part in that meeting as Ada B. Samuels, which name is noted in newspaper coverage of the meeting. Then in 1919 Thoms, as president of the NACGN, called upon African American nurses to support woman suffrage. She urged the membership that political suffrage was necessary tool for them to be able to achieve the social, political and economic changes they sought for their profession.

Thoms continued at Lincoln Hospital after WWI until 1923. Two years earlier, her career gained further national attention when she was appointed by Dr. C. C. Pierce, the Assistant Surgeon General of the Army, to serve on the Women's Advisory Council of Venereal Diseases of the United States Public Health Service. Venereal disease among the Black population was a prevalent health problem as it was among other racial/ethnic groups particularly with respect to returning soldiers from the war. Lack of reliable research and education on the subject contributed to the problem in addition to racist assumptions that affected African American healthcare and welfare needs.

Thoms retired from Lincoln Hospital in 1923 and married Henry Smith. Tragically that marriage ended one year later with his sudden death. Like her first husband, little is known about Smith. Despite these and other obstacles to her professional life and her health (as a diabetic), Thoms continued to be active in NACGN throughout the 1920s even after her retirement. In 1936, NACGN singled out Thoms and awarded her the organization's first Mary Mahoney Medal, named for the first Black woman to become a professional nurse. The recipient of the Mahoney Medal was to embody the ideals of the organization and their career reflected

achievements in the advancement of Black nurses professionally and within the larger community. Thoms had not only led a hospital school, sought for nurses to serve in WWI, the Red Cross and American Nurses Association on equal footing with white nurses, but she ended her career in 1929 with the publication of the first history of NACGN, Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses.

Thoms continued to live in New York City with her niece, Nannie Samuels. Her health declined due to complications from diabetes and a heart condition. She eventually returned to Lincoln Hospital as a patient and died on February 21, 1943. She was buried with her second husband, Henry Smith. In 1976, she along with Mahoney and Franklin, her professional NACGN sisters, were inducted posthumously into the Nursing Hall of Fame.

 

Adah Samuels Thoms. Accessed online at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/d/da/AdahThoms.jpg

Sources:

Althea Davis, Early Black Leaders in Nursing: Architects for Integration and Equality (Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 1999). Davis is the most in depth treatment of Thoms life and career.

Darlene Clark Hine, ed. Black Women in America, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2005).

----------. Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Africana: The Encyclopedia of African and African American Experience (Oxford University Press, 2005).

American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2000).

African American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Charles Hounmenou, "Black Settlement Houses and Oppositional Consciousness" Journal of Black Studies Vol.43 no. 6 (September, 2012).

Adah Belle Samuels Thoms, Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses (New York: Kay Printing House, 1929).

Hilary Nicole Green, "Educational Reconstruction: African American Education in the Urban South, 1865-1890." (PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina, 2010).

G. Estell Massey, "The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses" in The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 33, No. 6 (June 1933).

New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts. "St. Marks United Methodist Church, NYC Church Collection, 1947-87." Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Ancestry.com for New York City Marriage Records, 1910.

Jennifer Casavant Telford, "American Red Cross During WWI: Opportunities and Obstacles" (PhD Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2007).

Sandra Beth Lewenson, "The Relationship Among the Four Professional Nursing Organizations and Woman Suffrage, 1893-1920." (PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1989).

Sandra Lewenson, Taking Charge: Nursing, Suffrage, and Feminism in America, 1873-1920, (New York: Garland, 1993).

 

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