Quiet Progress: One of Mercy Nursing School's First Black Students Remembers the Civil Rights Era

January 17, 2015

Lois Faye May, pictured in 1958 during

her first year at Mercy Nursing School

Lois Faye May remembers exactly where she was when she learned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot: working in an operating room at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City – then Mercy General in midtown Oklahoma City.

“Someone heard it on the radio and came into the operating room to tell us. It was a really scary time because we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” said May, who was one of Mercy’s first African American nurses. “Everybody was more or less in shock. Because of what was happening in other places in the country, some of us were afraid to go to work.”

In shock, certainly, but May says she and her friends didn’t lose hope. She had already seen King’s impact and was a leader of change herself. Ten years prior to King’s death, May was in the first fully integrated class at Mercy Nursing School, from 1958 – 1961, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“The year before us, there was one black student, but in our class there were seven of us,” said May. “Mercy was the only place around accepting African American nursing students at the time.”

Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional, many schools continued segregation or complete rejection of black students. It wasn’t until 1962 that James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi – a historical event which triggered violence and riots, prompting President Kennedy to deploy 5,000 federal troops to the university to restore peace.

Like Meredith, May and her fellow African American nurses faced adversity during their years at nursing school. But, just because their experiences didn’t make headlines doesn’t mean they didn’t make an impact.

“It was the way of the times. Your skills and integrity would be questioned simply because you’re black,” said May. “Before college, our high school teachers, parents, church and community leaders tried to prepare us for the hazards we would face. We had a lot of support, and Mercy had already come so far.”

May remembers leaning on her fellow black students, and being protected by her instructors and the Sisters of Mercy.

“The nuns and instructors had to stand up for us almost daily with patients and physicians who weren’t accustomed to working with black nurses,” said May.

May also remembers one Sister of Mercy in particular who she describes as, “no nonsense.” Specifically, she remembers the Sister having zero tolerance for racial discrimination.

Sister Mary Alvera, who defended May

and her black classmates during nursing school

“I remember Sister Mary Alvera. She was my supervisor in surgery. She was quiet and very caring – but she wouldn’t stand for any nonsense,” said May. “She expected people to change with the times, and she let them know it.”

In 1961 – seven years before King’s death – the seven black students graduated from Mercy Nursing School and went on to careers in nursing. May continued at Mercy General, where she became head nurse in thoracic surgery.

“One of the girls who started with me became a head nurse at Mercy,” said May. “That was unheard of in the 60s.”

There was a patient who didn’t want May to take care of her because of her skin color. She explained to the patient that she was the nurse in charge, but the patient still didn’t want May’s care.

“I asked my supervisor to find a white nurse to care for the patient,” said May.

That didn't fly with her supervisor. Instead, May’s supervisor explained to the patient that May was the nurse in charge and there was no other choice. Finally, the patient agreed and May respectfully cared for the woman.

“The Sisters and our supervisors stood up for us. It was something we encountered quite a bit at that time, but we learned to handle it effectively and professionally,” said May. “It felt pretty good to have your supervisor stand up for you like that. And the really neat thing was noticing those incidents happening less and less as time went on.”

Without making headlines, May and her supervisors were quietly making progress. There was a new way of doing things at Mercy, and the community slowly came around because of the courage of people like May.

The Mercy Nursing School Graduating Class of 1961

Lois Faye May stayed at Mercy until 1970, when she went on to St. Anthony’s to serve as nursing associate head of surgery. In 1974, May moved to OSU-OKC’s School of Nursing, where she helped shape future nurses as a professor and department associate head, until retiring in 1993. As a tribute to her service, there's a nursing scholarship in her name at OSU-OKC. May earned her nursing diploma from Mercy Nursing School, a bachelor’s in health education from Oklahoma City University, and a master’s in nursing from The University of Oklahoma. She stayed in touch with most of her fellow black nursing students, and sees them a few times a year.

Mercy fifth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. which servers millions annually. Mercy includes 34 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children’s hospitals, three rehab hospitals and two orthopedic hospitals, nearly 700 clinic and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.



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