Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/Mary Willingham

Mary Willingham
Athens, Georgia
ResidenceAthens, Georgia
OccupationPractical Nurse

Mary WillinghamEdit


Mary Willingham was an African American mother, wife, practical nurse and an interviewee for the Federal Writers Project in 1939.


Mary Willingham was born around 1880 in Athens, Georgia, with no specific date of birth being recorded. Willingham lived within the confines of Georgia her entire life. She attended grade school in Morton’s Chapel, a church house, but was only able to finish up to the second grade. She had a husband and four children, and two of her children moved away to Atlanta. Willingham managed to get her certificate of practical nursing in 1926, which took her two years to receive. She practiced nursing up to the time of an interview conducted by Sadie B. Hornsby in 1939. During that period, Willingham was renting a house which she lived in for seven years. She was 48 when the interview was conducted. There are no details mentioned on her death.[1]

Professional LifeEdit

Willingham started practicing after her sister-in-law introduced her to a sick white patient. The patient hired Willingham at a rate of eight dollars a week. Willingham worked alongside African American nurses and with white doctors. There were many nights that she would be taking care of patients for the day and night with minimal rest. Moreover, she did experience racial discrimination with white patients. Willingham accounted a time when a white woman questioned her intelligence on how Willingham knew her heart was racing. Not soon after, a white doctor threatened to release her for sharing “false” information. Willingham also noted that doctors would treat the nurses in a demeaning manner, as shown by their tone when addressing her and other African American nurses.[2]

Social IssuesEdit

African American Economic AutonomyEdit

During the 1920’s-30’s, African Americans faced racial discrimination, which prevented them from working in higher paying positions and companies that led to economic autonomy. Among the individuals employed in the South, white and African American workers were often paid comparable wages if they worked at the same job for the same company. However, African Americans were less likely to hold the better-paying, skilled jobs, and they were more likely to work for lower-paying companies.[3] Regarding healthcare, “blacks seeking hospital care, especially in the South, were not admitted to white hospitals . . . the need for black nurses—as was the case for black doctors, barbers, funeral directors, and other professional and business people—was essentially a result of the unwillingness of white professionals to serve black people.”[4]

Nursing and Economic Autonomy

It was uncommon to see white and African American people within the same professional workplace, but nursing was structured differently. White doctors were willing to accept African American nurses within their hospital practice because nursing was considered a menial profession. Many doctors considered a nurse a personal servant, so they would look to hire African American women to fit that role.[5]Nonetheless, these opportunities did not place African American women in a position for economic freedom—they only earned an average annual income of $331.32, which was much less than their white counterpart, who earned an average of $771.69.[6]

WWI and Economic AutonomyEdit

WWI did provide progression toward economic autonomy for African Americans. In a commentary on the disadvantaged position of African Americans in American society, local boards correctly noted that the thirty dollars a month that a black serviceman received as his military pay, often supplemented by family allotments of $15 to $50 through war risk insurance plans, exceeded the wages received by most black laborers and farmers in the southern states. “The army, however, embraced racial separation as a permanent arrangement to allow the black and white races to live in peace, not as a stepping stone to eventual social mixing or equality.”[7]

African American Women and EducationEdit

During the 1920’s-30’s, African American women looked to establish education for their race. “In fact, implementation of racial uplift fell largely to black women, with the small numbers of educated black women . . . having a major impact on the African American community.”[8] The establishment of schools for African Americans post-Reconstruction was not unusual. Yet, most of the schools were founded by northern Whites acting as church missionaries. But even when Reconstruction ended in the 1870s, prevailing racist ideologies led to many African American children becoming targets of hate crimes and to the destruction of black schools.[9] There were still African American women that fought through the time of transition, including Mary McLeod Bethune. She took on the task of establishing a school dedicated to African girls and later founded the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses.[10] Another African American pioneer in the field of nursing and education was Adah Belle Samuel Thoms, who graduated from the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing. Thoms was named acting director the same year she earned her degree. At the time, it was unheard of for a black woman to hold such a prestigious position, so she was never officially named director, despite her exemplary record while leading the school.[11] Other notable figures include Mary Eliza Mahoney, Susie King Taylor, etc.[12]


  1. Hornsby, Sadie. 1939. “I Ain’t No Midwife.” Federal Writers Papers, March, 1775–93. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/868/rec/1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Maloney, Thomas L. "African Americans in the Twentieth Century." EHnet. October 02, 2018. https://eh.net/encyclopedia/african-americans-in-the-twentieth-century/.
  4. “Taking the Pulse of Blacks in Academic Nursing.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 34, Dec. 2001, p. 22., doi:10.2307/3134089.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Maloney. "African Americans in the Twentieth Century."
  7. Keene, Jennifer D. "A Comparative Study of White and Black American Soldiers during the First World War." Cairn Info. 2002. October 1, 2018. https://www.cairn.info/revue-annales-de-demographie-historique-2002-1-page-71.htm.
  8. Thomas, Veronica G. “The Education of African American Girls and Women: Past to Present.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 76, no. 3, Celebrating the Legacy of “The Journal”: 75 Years of Facilitating Excellence in Black Education, 1 July 2007, pp. 357–372.
  9. Ibid., 360.
  10. Ibid., 361.
  11. Black History Month: 12 Leaders in Nursing and Medicine.” Nurse, Nurse, nurse.org/articles/black-history-month-nursing-leaders/.
  12. “Making History: Black Nightingales.” Minority Nurse, Springer Publishing Company , 5 Oct. 2015, minoritynurse.com/making-history-black-nightingales/.