DUMC History Retrospective: Duke’s African-American LPN Program

This look back at DUMC history features Duke’s Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) program. When it began in 1948, there were already several others in the state. Duke’s was unique, however, as it was the only one in North Carolina established exclusively for training African-American nurses.

The program, known as the Practical Nurse School at Hillside High School, was a collaborative effort between Duke University Hospital, the Durham City Schools, and the North Carolina Department of Vocational Education and was established to address the area’s shortage of professional nurses. The idea was that trained LPNs would be a means of improving bedside care, as they could take over the duties that might have been previously handled by a nurse’s aide or a professional nurse.

Yet because LPNs performed a more limited range of duties than professional nurses, they required less education, and therefore even a newly-established program could begin to supply the local area with LPNs in a relatively short amount of time. Knowing that one third of the city’s population was African American, the program’s creators wanted to tap into this labor pool. They envisioned the LPN program as a means of addressing the area’s shortage, as well as creating new work opportunities for African-American women.

The program was originally set to operate through Lincoln Hospital, which served Durham’s African-American population. However, it became clear during the planning stages, that the hospital could not financially support the new program, forcing the institution to withdraw. The leaders at Duke University Hospital agreed that the program could move to Duke, which had the means to support it, and could provide office and classroom space, instructor salary, and cover incidental costs.

The year-long course consisted of three months of nursing and basic science classes at Hillside High School, followed by nine months of practical experience at Duke University Hospital, through which students gained skills in bedside nursing duties, such as feeding and bathing patients, maintaining medical charts, and caring for equipment. An early brochure stated the program’s goal was “to prepare qualified persons to work as practical nurses under the direction of physicians or professional nurses. A practical nurse is prepared to care for mildly ill patients, and to assist the registered professional nurse in the care of others.”

In June 1949, the first 26 LPNs graduated from the program, the majority of which were hired to continue on at Duke. While Duke University Hospital already had African-American workers and technicians, this group was noteworthy as they were the first African-American nurses to be employed at the institution. Although the hospital maintained segregated wards until the early 1960s, the LPNs occupied a unique space in the hospital’s structure, working throughout the facility on all wards, with black and white patients.

As part of the Black History Month celebration in February, 2006, several of the original members of the 1949 class and subsequent classes of the Licensed Practical Nursing program were honored during the Library's Tea with the Trailblazers celebration. 

To learn more about DUMC history, visit the Duke University Medical Center Archives Website or email dumc.archives@mc.duke.edu.