“I don’t want the Black girl in here. I don’t want my baby delivered by the Black girl.”
That’s what Anitra Ellebry-Brown remembers being said in the mid-2000s by a pregnant white woman’s husband when she was a student midwife enrolled in a rigorous dual degree program at Vanderbilt University.
Ellerbry-Brown, now 48 and a certified nurse-midwife and family nurse practitioner, says the incident was one earliest episodes of racial discrimination in her career.
She found it difficult “just having to stand there during that moment and still be professional and then still realizing that they require care just like any other patient.”
“There was an emergency during that visit where I had to step in and help,” she says. “I was still able to provide objective care no matter what the situation was. All of that just left my mind because mother and baby were in danger and I was needing to help the attending midwife.”
The wife was horrified by her husband’s statement and later apologized, Ellebry-Brown says.
But an experience like this wasn’t unexpected for Ellerbry-Brown. She comes from a family of Black, rural Mississippi-based women who’ve dedicated their lives to nursing.
Her mother became a nurse after retiring from a former career in 2015. And her mother’s mother — Ellebry-Brown’s grandmother — started the family tradition of being a nurse in the 1970s after leaving Mississippi for more opportunity in East St. Louis, Illinois.
“She left my grandfather, moved away, and became a CNA — a certified nursing assistant — because that was the only opportunity that she had to become a nurse at that age and at that time in society,” Ellebry-Brown recalls about her grandmother’s decision.
Ever since Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first Black licensed nurse in the U.S. in 1879, hundreds of thousands of Black people have followed in her footsteps.
Black nurses today make up nearly 10% of all registered nurses in the country, according to Minority Nurse. And much like Mahoney, who was among the few students to complete the intense nursing program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, they continue to persevere against racism in healthcare and strive for excellence in their caregiving.
A survey of over 5,600 nurses released in January by the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing found that overall “63% of nurses surveyed say that they have personally experienced an act of racism in the workplace with the transgressors being either a peer (66%), patients (63%), or a manager or supervisor (60%).” However, according to the survey, Black nurses bear the brunt of racism in nursing, with 92% — the highest of any demographic — reporting experiencing acts of racism.
Ellebry-Brown said talks with her grandmother helped her to focus on providing care in that moment with the white man who wanted her out of the delivery room.
“I would hear her talk about stories about having to clean people and take care of people when they’re calling her the n-word, when they’re using very strong language that wouldn’t be repeated today,” she says about her grandmother.
“I’d say ‘well, granny, how did you do that?’ And she would say, ‘You just have to do it. No matter what they’re saying, your compassion and love for all of mankind should supersede that.’”
Ellebry-Brown worked at a community health center before opening her own practice, where she provided standard birth control and maternal care.
After closing her practice, she entered corporate healthcare and has performed in a number of roles — including creating clinical policies and procedures that help with the safety of elderly people in their home setting.
Now, she works as a senior director of clinical services.
When she looks back on her experiences in healthcare, Ellebry-Brown tries not to get stuck thinking about her experiences with racial discrimination.
“As a mother of four daughters, I want to show them perseverance by not dwelling on that,” she says. “We’re all going to have different trials and tribulations in our lives. And it’s just a matter of how we choose to face those.”
Those moments taught her a few things about her ability to fulfill her duty as a nurse, even in the midst of opposition.
“I learned that I can provide care, even for hateful people. I learned that I can move forward in knowing that I’m doing the best for that person no matter what,” she says.
Like her mom and grandmother before her, Ellebry-Brown has passed down the family tradition. Her eldest daughter now works as a nurse in neuro ICU — making it four generations of Black nurses in the family.
She hopes Black women, who continue to thrive as one of the most educated groups in America, understand how crucial they are to the future of nursing. And, says Ellebry-Brown, it’s important for Black girls to be exposed to all of their options early on — beyond becoming a doctor, which was her initial plan.
“They don’t know what other options there are in nursing, respiratory, physical therapy, unless they have an accident or an injury and they have to go to PT,” she says. “So, if we’re able to expose them to that early on and act as mentors to help them make that decision…that’s my hope, because we are entering the workforce each day as educated Black women and I want to see that trend continue.”