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Legacy of the Black Angels: From the Shadows to the Spotlight 

March 20, 2024


Legacy of the Black Angels: From the Shadows to the Spotlight 

Despite growing up just 10 miles from Staten Island, Maria Smilios stumbled upon a mind-blowing piece of local medical history in 2016 that she had never heard of before. At the time, she was an editor for the publishing company Springer Science, diving deep into rare lung disease research, when she found a nugget of information that left her astonished: the cure for tuberculosis happened right there on Staten Island back in 1952. The more she dug, the more she uncovered an extraordinary tale that wasn’t just a milestone in medical history but also intertwined with women’s and Black history. 

This journey of discovery led Maria to Virginia Allen, one of the last surviving “Black Angels” – the affectionate name given to the nurses who dedicated their lives to caring for tuberculosis patients at Staten Island’s Sea View Hospital from 1929 to 1961. It was Allen who introduced Maria to the families of the Black Angels, who then shared the captivating stories that laid the foundation for her book, “Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis,” which hit the shelves in September 2023. The book highlights two remarkable nurses from those early days, Allen’s aunt, Edna Sutton Ballard, and Missouria Louvinia Meadows-Walker, bringing to life their critical roles in this pivotal moment in history. 

Were there any challenges with gathering information? 

MS: One of the greatest challenges of writing nonfiction is you cannot bend time or make things up. Everything has to be true. I come from a family of Greek immigrants. They love oral stories. My grandparents or mom would tell me these stories, and sometimes I would say, “That’s not how it really happened.” And they’d said, “That’s what we remember.” And so, I honored their experience. When I started this book, I knew if these nurses’ stories were going to rely on oral history, it needed to honor them, but it also needed to be correct. So, I had to strike that balance between experience and facts.    

For example, Virginia’s lived experience of being on the children’s ward differed from what was written in the nurse’s log. She talks about it in a more positive light, where children weren’t too sick, but the log talks about children who were strapped to beds, who were given phenobarbital, and who were throwing feces on the walls. So, I needed to find a way to tell both accounts.    

Was there anything that personally impacted you during your research? 

There were many things. First, this is a story of Black women in science that was completely erased from one of the most important moments in human history, the cure for tuberculosis. Nowhere in all the articles that came out in the United States and globally did anyone ever talk about the nurses. And in the photographs snapped by dozens of photographers, either the nurses are in the background or not in the photos at all.  

Second, I was deeply moved by the population at Sea View Hospital. Most of the people sent there were immigrants, who at the time were considered “immoral, uncouth, and uncultured.” Basically, they were sent there to die. They were voiceless people whose experience of America was awful. My father’s side of the family had this wonderful experience of coming to America. My grandfather escaped the Ottoman Empire, arrived in New York, and was able to get work in a factory. He built a good life for himself. But my mother’s family, who came here after the Nazis destroyed their village in Greece, had a miserable experience. They didn’t speak English, were overwhelmed by the city, and months into being here were thrown into a medical nightmare where they had to navigate the healthcare system. Their experience was very similar to that of the people who were sent to Sea View. So, this was another thing that drove me to tell their story. In the end, you had a population of nurses and patients considered second-class citizens: for one group, it was their adopted country, and for the other, their own country.  

How do you see these nurses’ legacy shaping the nursing field today? 

I am not a nurse. But I can say from experiencing COVID in New York City and seeing what happened at Elmhurst Hospital, with the nurses not having PPE and contract nurses coming in to fill gaps in a system that’s falling apart, that we need to invest a lot of money into our healthcare system.  

How are nurses not the highest-paid people in the country? They are the backbone of hospitals, and yet, many times, they are seen as expendable. Looking at the past and at the story I tell, we see there is still so much systemic and structural racism within these systems. We have a tiered hospital system that is coming apart at the seams and a healthcare system where who lives or dies is based on zip codes. That’s no different than what was happening at Sea View; you had wealthy people going to private sanatoriums—that were practically resorts—to convalesce from tuberculosis. Then you had immigrants [and other marginalized people] being sent to a “pest house” to die with the Black nurses, who were considered nonessential. That’s why we need to read these stories. We need to see the mistakes and fix them. 

What do you want readers to take away from this book? What theme do you want to communicate? 

This is a triumphant story. In the end, it is a story about humanity. It’s about showing us that there’s always people willing to take care of us. There’s always somebody who’s going to rise to the occasion and “fix things.” In the case of these nurses, they rose; in doing so, they saved tens of millions of lives and continue to save tens of millions of lives. But is it fair to keep asking the most ambitious among us to rise to these occasions during public health crises? How long is this model sustainable?  

Maria Smilios was born and raised in New York City. In 2016, while working as a developmental editor for Springer Science, she learned about this extraordinary story and became determined to tell it. She holds a Master of Arts in American literature and religion from Boston University, where she was a Luce scholar and taught in the religion and writing program. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Narratively, The Forward, Lit Hub, Writers Digest, Dame Magazine, The Rumpus, and other publications.  

The city and State of New York recently recognized her for “outstanding service” and “positive contribution” to the people of New York. The book also inspired the Staten Island Museum to curate the exhibit “Taking Care: The Black Angels of Sea View,” which is on display through November 2024.  


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