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Lessons of a segregated nursing school

 When Louise Lomax Winters became ill in 2006, her only daughter realized she'd have to place her in a nursing home. As Pia Jordan sifted through her mother's possessions, she ran across a scrapbook with raised airplanes on the cover, labeled "Tuskegee Army Flying School."
 
As she leafed through the scrapbook, Jordan gained a greater appreciation of her mother's role as one of about 29 Tuskegee Army nurses tasked with keeping the famed Tuskegee Airmen healthy and flying during World War II.
 
"She was really a part of African-American, or American, history," Jordan said of her mother, a Nottoway County native and a 1942 graduate of the former St. Philip School of Nursing for African-American women — a segregation-era branch of the Medical College of Virginia School of Nursing.
 
Winters died in April at age 91. But she lives on through a memorial fund in her name at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing.
 
"When my mother died, I wanted to leave some sort of legacy," said Jordan, a lecturer in the Communication Studies Department at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The fund started with $10,000 and has been bolstered by subsequent contributions.
 
The memorial fund is but the latest effort to bridge the chasm between VCU and St. Philip, which graduated 688 nursing students from 1920 to September 1962. At least two other graduates of highly regarded St. Philip, Mencie Trotter and Della Bassette, were Tuskegee nurses, Jordan said.
 
As Jordan points out on her Tuskegee Army Nurses website, its nurses had to fight gender as well as racial discrimination. The still-segregated Army limited the number of black nurses to about 500 out of a total of 50,000 in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II.
 
"Here they are placed way down in Alabama in a town that really didn't want them there," Jordan said of the Tuskegee nurses. "Even though they wore the uniforms, they talk about how they were fighting two wars" — foreign and domestic.
 
Her mother and the other nurses arrived at Tuskegee Army Air Field as second lieutenants. "The airmen didn't. They had to salute the nurses," Jordan said.
 
Winters, unlike several of her Tuskegee peers, remained stateside. She came out of the Army in 1949 and left the reserves four years later and went on to become a psychiatric nurse in Washington.
 
A Morgan State colleague encouraged Jordan to delve into her mother's legacy. Two years ago, Jordan decided to create a multimedia documentary on her mother's experience and make sure her peers do not remain overshadowed.
 
"We hear a lot of the story of the airmen. But there were support people," she said. "If there's no one around to tell their story, there's no story to be told."
 
The experience also led Jordan to reach out to VCU.
 
James Parrish, development director for the nursing school, called Jordan's gift "a good example of generational connection" — the sort of precious tie VCU needs. "There is a point in time where they'll be no living St. Philip alumni," he said.
 
Through the years, her mom attended St. Philip reunions and was a member of the school's Washington alumnae chapter.
 
"When we graduated, we developed our own reunion," said Virginia Roane, a 1961 graduate of St. Philip and head of the school's Legacy Project. "And it's only been within in the last 10 years that we've decided to participate in the overall reunions VCU has with its graduates."
 
Roane, 73, credited longtime Nursing School Dean Nancy Langston with bringing the institutions together. "I think she felt it was a little ridiculous that we were acting as two separate entities. It took a while for St. Philip grads to warm up to that concept, but they decided to put feelings aside."
 
A St. Philip school commemorative marker sits in a courtyard near the Egyptian Building. Roane is collecting as much information as she can on St. Philip to place in its heritage room at the nursing school before 2012, the 50th anniversary of the school's closing.
 
The legacies of St. Philip and Louise Winters are part of a painful past, but one whose memory must be preserved for its redemptive lessons. No history should be relegated to a scrapbook.
 
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