Monday workshop
Monday, October 24, 2022 - 3:30pm

392 Cohen Hall

Pathologizing Racial Trauma & Black Resistance: The Case of Nursing Student Gwendolyn Jones 1953-1956

Hafeeza Anchrum, PhD, RN

University of Pennsylvania

In March 1955, Gwendolyn Eloise Jones was required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation due to “emotional difficulties” and “strange behavior” noticed and reported by nursing supervisors. At the time, Jones, a second-year Black nursing student, was affiliated with Philadelphia’s Albert Einstein Medical Center since her primary facility, Mercy-Douglass Hospital, was closed for renovations. Jones acknowledged feeling emotional distress and discontent, but she attributed it to the racially hostile learning environment and unfair treatment by her white colleagues. The Einstein doctors, however, dismissed her claims of discrimination, concluding that they were in fact evidence of paranoid defenses and delusional thinking. On the basis of these subjective judgments and other purportedly aberrant behaviors she exhibited, Jones was diagnosed with incipient paranoid schizophrenia. The doctors then recommended that her nursing training be terminated immediately in order to protect the school’s interests and to allow her to receive urgent psychiatric treatment. This paper uses archival materials and interviews with graduates of Mercy-Douglass School of Nursing to piece together the case of Gwendolyn Eloise Jones. These sources tell a complex but partial and moving story of a young aspiring nurse grappling with what it meant to be a poor Black woman in the turbulent 1950s, with limited resources to support her spiritual, emotional and material needs. Jones’s case expands scholarly interpretations of race, resistance, and psychiatry during the decades of the civil rights movement, which typically highlight the experiences of everyday Black men, to include women and, in a novel way, health professional trainees. While Black women nurses are the subject of this historical inquiry, their lived experience illustrates the racial trauma that Black Americans endured when they integrated white institutions during the period of racial desegregation. It also lends historical context for contemporary conversations about the health effects of racism and intergenerational trauma on Black Americans, the social ramifications of resistance, and medical mistrust in the Black community.