Lillian Brown Stevenson of Indianapolis has the distinction of being one of the earliest African American females to graduate from City Hospital’s Nursing School in Indianapolis. She was the third, to be exact!
Born Lillian Brown on November 27, 1922, she was one of seven children raised by her parents, George and Jane Francis (Worth) Brown. Her family lived in the Patrick Ward Bottoms (low income housing) at Brooks St. and 10th for her first ten years. Her family then moved to the East side.
She grew up on the west side of Indianapolis and attended Grade School 24 and School 17 before graduating from Crispus Attucks High School in 1941.
Her entrance into nursing school at City Hospital was almost by happenstance. “I found an application for nursing school in the street by city hospital”, she explained. “So I filled it out and took it to the nursing office at city hospital”. I was accepted right away. It was at that time that they first started taking black people.”
City Hospital of Indianapolis
A year prior, the first two African American females had been accepted into the nursing school. The plan was to allow two African American students each year. Stevenson, who came a year later, was the third one. She was joined by another black student who later dropped out of the program, making Stevenson the only African American in her class.
Stevenson has special memories of her father coming into the hospital to pay for her tuition. “I felt so good and proud of my father as he walked into that office with his overalls on and laid that $300 on the desk to pay for my tuition”, she said. “It felt like a million dollars. He had 300 one dollar bills in his pocket, and he laid them down on the desk 1 dollar at a time. I watched them pile up. That was the happiest day of my life – for him to be able to have and pay that much money!”
The payment was no small sacrifice for Stevenson’s father. “He was a huckster”, she recalled. “He sold wood, food, and ice, and he refused to work for a white man. He had 3 raggedy trucks that he loaded up goods to sell to people. He was a little short man who peddled.” And Stevenson helped him load and peddle whenever she could. “He and I were very close”, she said.
Stevenson entered Nursing School in 1941 and began the 3 year training program. “I loved the training”, she said. “Everything was new to me. I had never experienced most of the things I was learning to do.”
Lillian Brown as a Nursing Student (to left of patient)
The training was exciting and came natural to her. “At 18 nothing was difficult”, she said. “You just do what you want to do.”
Being only the third African American student in the school’s history, Stevenson was very much a pioneer in the pre-civil rights era. “I was received well by the students but not as well with the supervisor, but I learned how to work around that”, she recalled.
Although she was accepted into the program she still had to deal with the segregation and discrimination of the times. “I wasn’t able to eat in the cafeteria with the others (she ate in a special section) or swim in the swimming pool”, she said.
She also wasn’t able to live with the white students. “The 4th floor (F wing) was built for black people”, she said.
In spite of the segregation, Stevenson found a way to have fun while at nursing school. We had to be in at 10:00 pm, but we would slip out”, she confessed. “It was fun to me because I had never been away from home before. It was fun going to the theater. I’d go all by myself because my older classmates didn’t want to hang out with me (the other two African American students in the program a year ahead of her) and the white students couldn’t. We couldn’t even go out the same doors.”
Somehow, the segregation did not embitter Stevenson to the white students and faculty. In fact, she very much liked and enjoyed most of her white classmates. “They were wonderful to me, she recalled. “The doctors, interns and students… we all had a beautiful time together.”
Stevenson especially enjoyed wearing her nursing uniform. “They werebeautiful starched uniforms with black shoes (later changed to white shoes). We didn’t wear the cap with the stripe until our 3rd year”, she said.
Most importantly, she loved her work with the patients. “The patients received me well”, she reminisced. “And I spoiled them all!”
Stevenson graduated from Nursing School in 1944.
Full-time jobs were not plentiful for African American Nursing graduates, so Stevenson did some part-time work in nursing outside the hospital while she attended the “Madame CJ Walker School of Cosmetology” for 9 months in 1944-45. At the conclusion of that school, Stevenson enrolled in Debbie’s School for Cosmetology and completed more training. “I thought I was going to be a cosmetologist, but I wasn’t good at it”, she said.
Following cosmetology schools Stevenson decided to put her full efforts back into nursing. She found a position at Wishard Hospital and worked on the OB/GYN floor for 5 years. She then worked for 2 years at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Indianapolis. During the time she worked there the V.A. moved to its current location on W. 10th Street.
When she wasn’t working in a health care institution, she was working her neighborhood, offering medical treatment on feet to African Americans at home. She recalled, “I worked for myself doing foot care for seniors at the patients’ homes. Black women and men never got their feet done, so I decided to do that. I never worried about the payments. Sometimes they paid me, sometimes they didn’t. ”
One thing she didn’t learn in Nursing School or anywhere else for that matter was how to manage finances. “I never learned how to make money or handle money”, she said.
But that never stopped her from applying her medical trade to help others. “I liked everything about nursing”, she recalled. Even when she wasn’t working specifically as a nurse Stevenson kept using her education to help others, no matter what she was doing.
In 1955 she married Oscar Stevenson of Indianapolis. The marriage lasted for 5 years before ending in divorce. The couple never had children. “I didn’t have time for children”, she explained. “I worked to satisfy my ambitions.”
Although biological children never blessed her life Stevenson did adopt a young boy, Phillip Kelley and raised him. She also enjoyed spending time with her siblings’ children. She has nieces and one nephew that still are in the area.
Life’s most difficult moments came at the death of her parents. Her father died in 1955 and her mother died 5 years later in 1960.
Following the deaths of her parents Stevenson moved to Phoenix in 1960 and remained there for the next five years. “Ijust made up my mind I was going to leave” she said. “One of my friends called me and said there was a job at St. Monica’s hospital – a nurse position in charge of surgery. Within a week I was there. I loved Phoenix. It was new. It was nice.”
Upon her return to Indianapolis in 1965, Stevenson was hired as a Registered Nurse at the Citizen’s Ambulatory Health Center, which offered free or discounted health services to those who qualified.
In 1971 Stevenson expanded her professional influence beyond patient care, becoming a founding member and first president of the National Black Nurses Association (Indianapolis Charter). As President, she was the face and vision of the infant chapter. Under her leadership, the association created bylaws and a constitution that established its organizational structure and set it up for longevity and success. Today, it continues to be an active and effective professional association supporting African-American Nurses.
Besides nursing, another thing that has been a constant in her life is her faith. Stevenson grew up attending the Church of the Living God. She became Roman Catholic as an adult and is a long-time member of St. Rita’s Catholic Parish on 19th and Andrew Brown Ave.
From her faith, a lifetime of service has followed naturally. “My life has been serving others. That’s just me. I have a heart for others”, she said.
Stevenson is a resident at Westpark Healthcare Center in Indianapolis.
Lillian Brown Stevenson – 2015
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