StoryCorps visited Sandy Ground Historical Society for 2 days of interviews to recognize and record the stories of the men, women and descendants of those who worked at Staten Island’s Seaview Hospital from 1913 -1960. During that time, the hospital served as one of the premier sanatoria for the treatment of tuberculosis in the United States; it also provided rare work opportunities for African American nurses. The nurses, referred to as Black Angels, were recruited and courageously volunteered to work in an environment where daily exposure to the deadly airborne pathogen was part of the job.
Participants Zonese Porter and Leah Bennett remember their aunt and mother.
“Seaview was a sea of darkness the only thing white at Seaview were the nurses uniforms. The supervisors were all black. Everybody was black. ” describes participant Zonese Porter. Her aunt, Annie Bostick, worked as an RN in what they called “up the track” in the pediatric unit. Her aunt came from Tuskeegee Institute, one of the Historically Black Colleges from which the hospital would recruit. Many of the nurses were not married. “I was like everybody’s baby, and spent a lot of time at the hospital.” Porter explains. “I’d see the children afflicted with TB who had been left at the hospital to await their fate, some without family support.” Porter recalls one of her classmates who contracted TB and wasn’t able to attend her graduation. Although Porter wanted to visit her friend , she couldn’t because of the stigma and dangers attached to the disease. She left disappointed but inspired. “It was the beginning of my being a social worker. I just wanted to go there.”
In 1957 Leah Bennett’s mother, Curlene Jennings Bennett, arrived at Seaview as the only black nurse to graduate from Bellevue Nursing School in 1957. She bravely requested to go to Seaview. Better pay was part of the incentive as well as the opportunity to ply her skills and earn a living. That year Curlene Bennett earned $3,500 a year, but because she worked with communicable diseases she earned an extra $240. With a surgical mask as her only protection, Bennett’s mother described conditions at the hospital as “walking through a petri dish.” Leah Bennett recalls scarier moments. “My mom did find a legion on her lung but thank God it didn’t become full blown TB.” Years later, Curlene Bennett’s bravery and dedication to the health of others continued in Liberia where she set up baby clinics and taught nutrition.
Both participants were pleased that Sandy Ground Historical Society provided time for excavating this moment of heroism in Black History and were happy to share their stories with each other. As Leah Bennett reflects, “I’m glad that these Black Angels are being recognized. It’s brought me and my mom closer.”