Since the beginning of the 20th century, nursing has developed from a menial job that some considered disreputable to a multi-faceted career that plays a vital role in the future of medicine. Today's nurses are involved at every level of patient care, including case management, performing procedures and establishing new standards for the profession. Nurses assume important administrative roles and assist with quality review. Some nurses are even able to establish their own independent practices, prescribe medicine, and diagnose conditions.1
It wasn't always this way. It took generations of overcoming bias to accept that nurses play an integral role in the medical profession rather than simply being there to perform basic tasks, like feeding and bathing patients.
This bias was not only based on gender discrimination, which played a central role in the perception of nurses being of relative unimportance. The institutional nature of racism, particularly coming in the form of Jim Crow segregation laws, prevented many women from either entering the profession in the first place or receiving adequate patient care.
One of the people who helped to advance the profession beyond these biases is Opaline Deveraux Wadkins, the first Black woman to earn a master's degree in public health from the University of Oklahoma. Wadkins played such an influential role in both advancing and desegregating the field of nursing that former Oklahoma Governor Davin Borin declared November 14, the day she retired, a state holiday.
The Life and Work of Opaline Deveraux Wadkins
Opaline D. Wadkins was born in Carthage, Texas in 1912. In 1938, already a registered nurse, she came to Oklahoma to work for the Department of Public Health. Because Jim Crow laws were still in effect, many hospitals did not admit Black patients at all. Others confined them strictly to a separate wing. Because white medical staff were sometimes not allowed to treat patients on the black wards, African Americans found it difficult to get the care they needed, especially given the shortage of properly trained Black nurses.
Frustrated by the situation and its implications for patient care, Wadkins joined the Oklahoma Negro Medical Society in petitioning University Hospital to open its door to Black patients. In 1945, it was the first hospital in Oklahoma to do so, through the University Hospital South Ward.2
In 1949, Wadkins went a step further, starting the first nursing school in Oklahoma City for Black women. She trained over 200 women to become licensed practical nurses between 1949 and 1953. Wadkins also played an instrumental role in desegregating the University of Oklahoma's College of Nursing, later establishing the Langston University School of Nursing. She was also the first Black woman to receive a master's degree in nursing from the University of Oklahoma.
Wadkins's concern that all people receive the same standard of care went beyond her work to desegregate hospitals and medical schools in Oklahoma. She also developed a health program for Indigenous Americans in Southwestern Oklahoma that cut their infant mortality rate in half. Her concern for the welfare of expectant mothers and their babies also led her to offer a prenatal clinic in the 1970s called the Stork's Nest.
After her retirement in 1976, Wadkins received numerous citations and accolades. She was honored for her service by the Veterans Administration Hospital Nursing Service, the Oklahoma Public Health Association, and the University of Oklahoma Black Alumni Society. In 1993 Wadkins was inducted into The Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame.
Wadkins died on April 11, 2000, in Oklahoma City at the age of 88. She continues to inspire the generations of nurses who follow in her footsteps.
The Legacy of Opaline Deveraux Wadkins
The most obvious contribution Wadkins made to the nursing profession was to push for the inclusion of marginalized people, both as patients and as healthcare workers. While she did not single-handedly desegregate the profession, she took bold steps at a time when Black Oklahomans could sometimes not even receive hospital care. She also saw the importance of going into marginalized communities to bring care directly to the people who needed it the most when institutional infrastructure was lacking.
Her efforts to train Black nurses have helped fuel the democratization of the profession. Today, 279,600 registered nurses (9.9%) and 162,800 LPNs identify as black.3 In other words, the percentage of black nurses working in the field is roughly the same as the population of Black people in the United States as a whole.
Typically, people associate life-saving efforts with surgeons and specialists. But when communities lack basic access to health care, they die from preventable causes. This is particularly true for Black women, who continue to experience an infant mortality rate 2.3 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites.4 Wadkins understood that providing care and developing a uniform standard of care are important tools in saving people's lives.
The United States has a ways to go to achieve the goal of equal medical care for all. Racism and poverty continue to affect people's access to treatment, thus impacting their health and their age expectancy. But thanks to dedicated nurses like Opaline Deveraux Wadkins, the profession has expanded to consider the needs of those who had been overlooked. Her humanity and devotion to patient care make Wadkins an inspiration to all nurses, everywhere.
Where can an online nursing degree from OCU take you?
When Opaline Deveraux Wadkins first started her nursing journey, she probably had no idea of the amazing legacy she would leave behind. She might also be surprised at how much the profession has grown and developed, thanks to her persistent efforts to push for inclusion and desegregation.
The Kramer School of Nursing at Oklahoma City University offers three fully online degree programs to satisfy those seeking to make a difference in patient care — the online RN-Bachelor of Science in Nursing, the online Master of Science in Nursing and the online RN-MSN. Our innovative programs train students to think critically and adopt a holistic perspective, giving you the tools you need to build a legacy of your own. Schedule a call with an Admissions Advisor to learn more about the online nursing programs at OCU.
- Retrieved on October 9, 2022, from nursingworld.org/practice-policy/workforce/what-is-nursing
- Retrieved on October 9, 2022, from muskogeephoenix.com/news/remember-the-ladies-desegregated-university-nursing/article_9d3da280-3804-5831-8399-9f146ed21c28.html
- Retrieved on October 9, 2022, from minoritynurse.com/nursing-statistics/
- Retrieved on October 9, 2022, from minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=23#:~:text\