Elizabeth Williams’ teenage years were filled with aspirations of upward mobility, achievement and a career in nursing; but she would rapidly discover discrimination that cast her as unwanted in a field on which her heart was set. “As black student nurses, we just weren’t recognized as legitimate,” Williams recalls, a sentiment that would persist throughout her early career.
Decades later, Williams remains confounded by an incident that took place in the early 1960s, when she applied for a head nurse position at a local hospital. She recalls, “The administrator … a white physician … sat down to talk with me about the fact that I had applied. And he said, ‘Now you really don’t want this position, do you?’ Can you imagine someone saying that to you?
“People were allowed to do that to you then. … You were denied the opportunity to work at a place of your choice — the person didn’t want you because of your skin color.”
Williams was born in Steelton, Pa., four miles southeast of Harrisburg, in 1933 — just years after the Great Depression devastated communities across the United States.
Her early childhood education took place at The Hygienic School, a Reconstruction-era institution founded for Black students in 1880. Williams didn’t realize that she was segregated from the community at large. All she knew was that all of her classmates were Black, and her teachers were committed to every student.
“The teachers in that school were really interested in us, were very, very emphatic about us learning and about us doing our best,” Williams noted. Her integrated high school experience, however, demonstrated that not everyone shared the same enthusiasm for her achievement. It was at Steelton High School that Williams first experienced discrimination and barriers to advancement because of her race.
“When I became a high school senior, I wanted to become a nurse and one of my good friends in high school — Marilyn Pottigrew was her name — we both wanted to be nurses,” Williams recollected. “So, she went to the counselor and of course, all kind of assistance was provided to her. Yes, Marilyn was a white student.”
But, as Williams recounts, her attempt to seek the same support from her counselor was rebuffed.
“I [sought] the counselor out and of course, his response to me was, ‘I don’t know what I can do for you,’” Williams recalled.
As a young person, I just can’t remember exactly how I felt but … I became more determined.
Responding with a heightened sense of purpose would allow Williams to overcome disparities in resources and support.
“There was no encouragement given to go to school, to go to college,” Williams noted. “We were the forgotten kids because there was no expectation from … our teachers [to attend college].”
Despite a lack of support and encouragement from teachers and her counselor, Williams kept her eyes fixed on her dream of becoming a nurse and began applying to hospitals on her own.
Her first application went to a hospital in Harrisburg. The response: “‘We don’t have any colored students here.’”
After a string of similar encounters, Williams reflects on how constant rejection fueled her ambition: “You just felt like this is the way life is but I have to keep pushing ahead in order to get done what I want to do, regardless of what the system might be telling me.”
Being denied on the basis of race and, in turn, having less access to training and work opportunities than her white counterparts would become a recurring theme in Williams’ educational journey. Fortunately for Williams, she enrolled as a nursing student at Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia with the support of her aunt, an alumna of Mercy-Douglass.
“The help of my family … that’s how I got into school,” shared Williams.
Mercy-Douglass Hospital was formed when two institutions founded by Black doctors merged. In the 1940s and 1950s, Mercy-Douglass Hospital School of Nursing trained young Black women looking to launch a professional career at a time when opportunities were limited.
When she arrived in Philadelphia in 1951, Williams experienced a full-circle moment. Though a country girl, Philadelphia felt familiar. “I felt like I was back in the groove at home again with the Black teachers that we had, the Black doctors because they were all interested in us and we were in a loving and supporting environment.”
Williams was warmly received by a group of girls with similar backgrounds and was excited to exist within a space that fought against widespread resistance to hiring Black nurses and doctors. In fact, many Mercy-Douglass nurses went on to integrate Pennsylvania’s health care system.
However, the health system’s resistance to hire placed an implicit pressure on the Black nurses at Mercy-Douglass. Although never told directly that the industry would be harder on them because of their skin color, Williams described an underlying message: “[Staff at Mercy-Douglass] were letting us know, ‘Hey you’ve got to work hard, and you have to do the best you can do because society's not going to look at you the same way as they do anyone else.’”
Mercy-Douglass made it possible for Williams to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse, and its well-regarded reputation landed her a job at a Philadelphia hospital upon graduation.
“Mercy nurses were trained very well,” Williams recalled. “There was a market out there for Mercy nurses because they knew we were good nurses. In Philadelphia, I had no problem getting a job.”
Mercy-Douglass’ training school would close in 1960 due to financial issues and Williams would be forced to matriculate to other hospitals. In retrospect, matriculating elsewhere prompted Williams to discover that Mercy-Douglass was under-resourced. She recalled, “We didn’t know that we didn’t have the same kinds of supplies, or that there were better supplies. … We knew that for a lot of things that we did, we had to improvise, because our hospital didn’t have the money to buy the latest equipment or to get the best of whatever it was that you needed in order to fulfill a procedure.”
She first transferred to a hospital in Essex County, N.J. There, Williams recalls experiencing racial discrimination when trying to participate in class. “No one else put their hand up to answer the question [besides me]. The instructor went to a white student and said, ‘Now, come on, you know this,’ and she never did come back to me,” she recollected.
While training at Philadelphia General Hospital, Williams was assigned to obstetrics and denied proper training. She recounted the gravity of racial discrimination to her learning experience: “It was just the ignoring of you, the walking past you. I mean this was in serious medical conditions,” like labor and delivery.
Ultimately, it was through her persistence that she was afforded the success she dreamed of in her youth.
“I started out as a nurse on a floor and … ended up as the superintendent of a hospital.”
Williams, 87, remains a member of the Mercy-Douglass Nurses Alumni Association, which seeks to preserve the rich history and influence of Mercy-Douglass Hospital. Her resolve is as strong today as it was when she first defied her counselor’s lack of expectations.
“I think that when you're faced with a lot of hardships,” Williams reflected, “somehow you rise to meet them, and you do the best you can.”
Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Elizabeth Williams’ interview, and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online and on Xfinity On Demand.