Fighting for Better Pay

Dorothy Lane, RN, Meharry class of 55, president of the Meharry School of Nursing History Project group

Dorothy Lane, RN, Meharry class of 1955, president of the Meharry School of Nursing History Project group

Throughout the book, as you read one remarkable story of achievement after another, there are moments when it’s almost possible to forget that the women of Meharry were educating themselves and stepping out into the world to build careers in post-reconstruction America, the Jim Crow south, and a country that had not yet experienced the civil rights movement. By the 1960s, they were still fighting for every prize.

Dorothy Person Lane, Meharry class of 1955, graduated and became, by 1960, the first black registered nurse employed by St. Thomas Catholic Hospital in Nashville, Tenn. “I was assigned to the operating room, where we did 40 or more cases a day,” Lane recalled, but her salary was low.

With a husband in school and a young son to support, Lane decided to apply to the Nashville Veteran’s Administration where salaries were much higher that what she war earning. A friend who worked inside the VA alerted Lane to job openings and she applied as soon as possible. Each time, the white chief nurse would come up with a different reason why she could not be hired. Frustrated, but believing that the United States was changing, Lane wrote to then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and told him her story.

Much to her surprise, Kennedy replied to her and the VA and she was finally offered a job, with just one catch. Rather than being offered a position at the Nashville hospital near her home as she had requested, the chief nurse assigned her to Murfreesboro — 37 miles each way from her driveway to the door. Lane’s reply: “The hardship of travel was added; it is true. Nevertheless, I was economically improved by an increase [in salary] from $250 a month to $7,000 a year!”

Meharry’s undergraduate school of nursing closed in 1962, for reasons the university has not disclosed. Graduate-level nursing programs continued until 1987. Much more than a historical listing of graduates from the past, Lifetimes of Dedication and Service opens a window in to the history of medicine and astonishing ability of black women to find way to enrich their communities and excel, against all odds.