Ella Brown’s contributions to nursing have had lasting value to nursing and the Greater St. Louis area. She is recognized as a lifelong educator, key administrator and a pioneer in the turbulent times of the civil rights movement in St. Louis.
Ella Brown is not a St. Louis native. She is a gift from Fort Worth Texas. After graduating with top honors from high school at the age of 15, she won a scholarship to Dillard College and completed her freshman year. She was very skilled as a licensed beautician at the time and paid her expenses by cutting and arranging hair. Not realizing it would forfeit her scholarship, she returned home for a brief period. Because of this loss of scholarship, she became aware of the need for students to know their rights as well as their responsibilities. Determined to make her own way, she took up a job in a meat packing plant during World War II. Jobs were plentiful for women then due to the war. There were always injuries in the meat packing plant and she had her first encounter with a nurse “looking so accomplished and professional in her white uniform”. That professional appearance and demeanor that attracted her to the profession remained with her as part of her own leadership style. Later she heard an advertisement on the radio about the Cadet Nurse Corps and she immediately applied to the nursing schools that took Black students. She vowed to go to the first one who responded to her application and fortunately for St. Louis, it was Homer G. Phillips School of Nursing. Her maturity and ability to mentor and advocate for students caught the attention of the faculty and she was immediately offered a teaching position upon graduation in 1947, She saw the need to further her education and applied as one of the first black students in St. Louis University’s BSN program in 1950 and later at Webster University and Washington University School of Nursing for Master’s Degrees in Nursing and Administration and a Certificate in Pediatric Nursing from University of Chicago. She remained at Homer G. Phillips as their Director of Nursing and personally mentored over 700 students at her dining room table. None of these students who studied at Ella’s dining room table failed their state boards. Her leadership style dictates leading by example and “going further with knowledge and skills and preparing the RN to go beyond the bedside and advance to supervisors and managers and instructors.”
Most pioneers get into battles and Ella Brown has fought off the slings and arrows. The closure of Homer G. Phillips Hospital is long remembered as one of the major blows to public health delivery and tertiary care in St. Louis. Many remember her demeanor at the closing of Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1979. Although the police riot squad with their horses and dogs were threatening the crowd (that included many of her staff nurses) who were blocking the exits when patients and equipment was being moved, Ella stood tall facing that angry mob of residents and staff blocking the exits. Her calm demeanor prevented many of her staff and citizens from being arrested or injured when the trucks and ambulances were moving ahead where members of her staff and the concerned community were lying in protest in the driveways. She moved her nursing skills and communication style to community action and became active with the economic boycott of Downtown St. Louis and Campaign for Human Dignity She positioned herself with the community leaders from education, business and elected officials to try to save the hospital from closure. It was a tragic period impacted by racism and economic pressure and she maintained a constant presence and voice of reason in those turbulent times. Ella emerged as a hero. She gracefully transferred her Director of Nursing position to City Hospital No. 1 and remained there until her retirement in 1984 when City Hospital closed and contracted out public hospital service to Regional Hospital. She remains active as a retired nurse by volunteering in Church and community activities with literacy programs and Alzheimer’s Support Groups. She has received many awards from the general community and health care community for her volunteer efforts.
She has been a member of MONA since ANA opened membership to black nurses over 55 years ago and was the first black Vice President of Third District and member of countless committees on Education, Program and Convention Planning for ANA, MONA and a Delegate to the International Council of Nursing Convention.
MONA is proud to claim Ella Bolden Brown as a role model as an educator, administrator and community leader.