by Carmen Wright, volunteer contributor
Few people have dreams as noble as Frances Elliott Davis, and even fewer have the determination to achieve them in the face of so many obstacles.
Born in 1881 in Shelby, North Carolina, Frances Davis was the daughter of an African-American Cherokee sharecropper and the daughter of a plantation owner and minister. By the age of five, she had lost both of he parents and entered the foster care system. She became a domestic helper in one of her foster homes, which left her little time for education. But Frances persevered on her own to improve her reading skills.
At the age of fourteen she had the good fortune to work for the Reed family, who helped finance her education. In pursuit of her dream to become a nurse and care for children, Frances worked at a hospital at Knoxville College until bad health forced her to resign. In 1910, she applied and was accepted into Freedman’s Hospital Training School for Nurses, where she became the first African American in the district to pass the exam given to white nurses which was considered more rigorous.
In 1913 Frances assumed the position of nursing supervisor at the Provident Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland and ran a community camp for low-income mothers and their children. While at Provident, she applied to the American Red Cross and became the first African American to attend their program at Columbia University. After completing her training, she continued to serve as a nurse and as an instructor in sanitation and prenatal care.
During Word War I, rules barring African Americans from joining the Army Nurse Corps kept Frances from directly serving the armed forces. Nonetheless, she contributed to the war effort by nursing soldiers in training in Cickamauga, Tennessee.
Frances Davis’s accomplishments as a nurse are numerous. She served as the director of nurses training at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama; she organized the first training school for African American nurses in Michigan at the Dunbar Hospital in Detroit; She managed prenatal, maternal, and child health clinics at the Child Welfare Division of Detroit; she ran a commissary at the Ford Motor plant during the depression to provide workers with food; and she established a day nursery in Inkster, Michigan that was so successful it caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped raise funds for the center.
Sadly, Davis died nine days before she was scheduled to be honored at the American Red Cross convention in 1965. Today, her Red Cross pin remains in the American Red Cross historical collection, and Frances Davis’s contributions to nursing, prenatal and maternal medicine, and advancement of other African American nurses remains in our memories.