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Ethel Fleming: First African-American Nurse Manager at M. D. Anderson

When Lurleen Wallace, governor of Alabama and wife of former Alabama governor George Wallace, checked into M. D. Anderson with metastatic ovarian cancer in 1967, the new order in race relations was well established. Four years earlier, Lurleen’s husband had fulfilled a campaign promise by barring the entrance of two black students in a symbolic attempt to prevent integration at the University of Alabama. 

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he had proclaimed during his first inaugural address. 

His carefully orchestrated stand in the schoolhouse door was a media moment, and he became an icon for bigots. Ethel Fleming had a chance to put Wallace in his place. She had grown up in Houston near the Baker estate and as a girl climbed through the hedges to play on the grounds. After graduating from high school, Fleming moved to New York City to attend the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing.

In November 1951, she became an Anderson nurse. With Renilda Hilkemeyer as a mentor, Fleming developed into a nurse without peer—tough, fair, and perceptive. She went out of her way to touch her patients—a grasp of the hand, a squeeze of the arm, a touch on the head—even those patients with foul, fungating tumors. She often called patients’ families after hours to report on their condition, and when patient relatives could not afford to stay overnight in town, she fed and boarded them for a few days. 

When frustrated, racist, and pain-wracked patients lashed out and called her “nigger,” Fleming turned the other cheek. On one occasion, a white woman suffering intractable pain screamed “niggers” at several black nurses trying to bathe her and change the sheets. She ordered them out of the room, and they complied, but her offense enraged them. A few minutes later, when the patient began to whimper in pain and ask for assistance, they responded slowly. Fleming heard about their revenge and ordered them back. Patients always came first, even the most troublesome and the most racist. 

Hilkemeyer had carefully selected Fleming as the first black nursing supervisor, much like Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers picked Jackie Robinson in 1947 to integrate Major League baseball. Rickey needed a man with athletic talent and a steady temperament. Hilkemeyer needed a black nurse who could withstand racist pressures and earn the respect, and obedience, of black and white nurses.

When she got into the hospital bed, Lurleen Wallace came under Fleming’s care. In a few minutes, the governor showed up and took immediate offense, insisting that Fleming leave the room and bring in the nursing supervisor. “I am the supervisor, Governor,” Fleming quietly replied. Wallace stomped out of the room and headed for the seventh floor, hoping to get satisfaction from Clark. 

He got none. The South was changing.

An excerpt from "Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center", by James S. Olson, Ph.D.

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Johns Hopkins University Press
ISBN: 13:978-0801890567



© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center