Judy Waters: Ahead of civil rights era, Pittsfield nurse left legacy of courageous diversity

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LUNENBURG — In 1917, Pittsfield resident Florence Jacobs Edmonds, granddaughter of Civil War activist the Rev. Samuel Harrison, heard from Pittsfield's House of Mercy hospital that no African American nurse had ever been trained there before. Florence applied to New York City's Lincoln School of Nursing. She would return to Pittsfield and reach milestones.

In the Black Women Oral History Project, scholar, historian and Pittsfield native Ruth Edmonds Hill interviewed her mother, Florence, about life in Pittsfield decades before the civil rights movement.

Born at home, March 27, 1890, Florence responded that she grew up on First Street, the second of six children. She graduated class valedictorian from Pittsfield High School in 1908. She took piano lessons on the city's West Side, as it was a "custom that girls learn an instrument." In summer, she rode the trolley to Pittsfield's Pontoosuc Lake; with friends, she hiked Mount Greylock. The church was a strong center of social life, Florence explained.

In New York, Florence earned a nursing degree, working alongside students from southern states. She earned a scholarship to Teachers College, Columbia University, to study hospital social service and worked at the groundbreaking Henry St. Settlement, known for public health nursing and aid to impoverished immigrants.

Florence married Pittsfield resident William Bailey Edmonds in 1922. From New York, they returned to Pittsfield to raise a family. Florence felt Pittsfield was "not yet ready for a black nurse." Years later, World War II brought a nursing shortage. Seeing a newspaper ad for home nurse training at Pittsfield's St. Luke's Hospital, Edmonds applied and was soon training Red Cross nurse recruits, with a small number of African American trainees soon joining the program.

From 1945-56, as a member of the Pittsfield Visiting Nurse Association, Florence walked to patients' homes in many Pittsfield neighborhoods; some people "didn't have a doctor," she said. As Florence explained in her interview, one household refused care from an African American nurse. Years later, often people would recognize Florence, passing on the street, warmly recalling her assistance with a home birth or sick relative.

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In 1956, retiring as a visiting nurse, ironically, Florence was offered a position as instructor and health program coordinator at Pittsfield General Hospital, formerly the House of Mercy. She also became secretary of the Massachusetts State Nursing Association. Upon her retirement as coordinator in the late 1960s, Pittsfield General Hospital would merge with St. Luke's as Berkshire Medical Center.

In retirement, health care specialist Florence Edmonds continued a lifelong commitment to Pittsfield's historic Second Congregational Church, 50 Onota St., where her grandfather Pittsfield pastor Reverend Samuel Harrison had led the congregation. She worked with Berkshire Athenaeum, the city bloodmobile, the Salvation Army and Berkshire Association. In 1975 she was honored at Pittsfield's "This is Your Life" day. Health care specialist Florence Edmonds died in 1983. Her life had centered on family, community and career. Her story, told in her own words when interviewed in 1980, was one of dignity, grace and stamina.

Advancing diversity within Pittsfield's health professions, decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Edmonds faced prejudice. She courageously took risks as a visiting nurse. On the front lines of community health, she aided those most vulnerable, as Pittsfield grew, prospered and became more inclusive. Florence's story is part of Pittsfield's history of diversity, its cultural heritage and Berkshire women's achievements in the 20th century.

On the subject of the 1970s women's movement, Florence said she had always felt independent and had worked, even as a widow. Asked about an important life accomplishment, the mother of four responded, "raising a family."

"Counting Nurses: The Power of Historical Census Data" (2009) traces the gender and racial diversity of the U.S. nursing field in the 20th century. It chronicles Florence Edmonds' life as a nurse in Pittsfield as she reentered the field during the Second World War, and describes work and family choices that many women made.

In 2020, the American struggle for equality continues. Even as democracy itself comes under threat in our very divided era, diversity grows and continues to be a strength.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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