Mary Holmes was one of the first black nurses at the University of Virginia Hospital. Apostle Sarah Kelley was the first black nurse at Martha Jefferson Hospital and the first African-American chaplain at UVa Medical Center.
Both were honored Friday at a UVa event commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and health professionals who have worked to improve diversity and equity in nursing and medicine.
“They set out on what appeared to be an unmarked path, but as we know, that path was in fact marked out by feet before them,” Tori Tucker, a doctoral student in nursing, said during introductions. “Each step mattered. Each foot mattered.”
Holmes, born in 1937, grew up in Campbell County on a tobacco farm and attended a segregated schoolhouse.
She always had been interested in medicine and helping people, she said, but in the 1950s there were only three places a black woman could get a nursing credential in Virginia. In 1959, she earned a registered nurse license from the St. Philip School of Nursing, the nursing school for African-American women then connected to the Medical College of Virginia. She applied to work at UVa’s hospital and became one of the first African-American nurses in the newly integrated wards.
“So I was a nurse, I was a nurse,” she exclaimed as the audience began to clap.
Holmes said she encountered discrimination, from standing up to a supervisor to convincing a shopkeeper that she really was buying a nursing uniform for herself. She kept her uniform’s white fabric ironed and pressed and wore it every day, she said, even after nurses began wearing scrubs.
“I had earned the right to wear that uniform,” she said.
Kelley, pastor and founder of Faith, Hope and Love Church of Deliverance, said she always wanted to help people, and she has worked toward that goal since she was a child.
Born in 1940, Kelley grew up in Charlottesville and in Washington, D.C. She said a vision at a young age encouraged her to seek ways to help people.
She worked as a nurse at Martha Jefferson Hospital, where she said a supervisor threatened to fire her just for using the wrong color of ink when she filled out charts. Later, when she decided get a degree from East Coast Polytechnic Institute, she said a company in Crozet offered jobs to three white classmates with the same grades, but not her. She filed a federal complaint and decided to return to nursing.
“It was hard for me, because I was still dealing with blackness and nobody really related to me,” she said.
She eventually took jobs as a nurse at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail and at UVa. There, she said, she realized how much she enjoyed talking with people and decided to pursue the chaplaincy.
“While at the jail, I recognized how much the calling of ministry was in my life,” she said, adding later that she hoped anyone could pursue their God-given callings. “If you want to do something God has allowed you to do, just endure hardness like a good soldier.”
Kelley still volunteers at the jail, offers chaplain services and is involved in her church and other ministries.
After two years in Charlottesville, Holmes went on to work for the Virginia Department of Health. She retired briefly and then went to work for Virginia Baptist Hospital, which had denied her job application decades earlier because of her race.
“And I worked there for seven years before retiring again after 50 years of active duty as a nurse, and I am so blessed. I did it,” she said.
UVa also awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health System Award to Dr. Preston Reynolds, a professor of internal medicine; Ishan Williams, associate professor of nursing and assistant dean for diversity and inclusion; and Franck Azobou, a fourth-year medical student.
“I love this kind of event because it helps me realize how far we’ve come,” Azobou said. “People like you have set the road for people like us, and I hope someday, in 40 years, to make it so far.”