Reunion of black nurses

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG –- The RN/LPN Association gathered together at the Royal Theater located at 1011 22nd St. S. for a reunion of nurses. The ladies that once spent their days working to save lives spent the evening remembering what it was like over five decades ago to be a nurse.

The RN/LPN Association has a long history, dating back to 1946 and is still active today. Formerly known as the RN Club, the organization was formed to help direct nurses toward united action for improved social and civic conditions, as well as to promote a good fellowship amongst its members. All members are either a registered nurse (RN) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN).

“We’ve come a long way,” said Mistress of Ceremony Mamie Rogers who recounted the days of eight-hour shifts with starched white dresses. “We walked the halls and took care of our patients and when we left our uniform, it was still as white as snow.”

Founded by Marie Yopp, a registered nurse herself, the RN/LPN Association is a legacy of service. Considered ahead of her time, Yopp diligently served her community for some 23 years. The pioneer nurse received her bachelor’s degree from Florida A & M, going on to Columbia University to earn her master’s in nursing.

When she finally came to Mercy Hospital here in St. Petersburg, she was one of only four black registered nurses. She quickly moved on to work in the Pinellas County Health Department, which then was a converted house next to the hospital.

Yopp was involved in the training of nurses for the Red Cross and was named the head of the Negro Health Clinic where she supervised both black and white aides who later became LPNs and RNs.

Vienna Adams acknowledged the last living original charter member, Mattie Bennett who was present at the event.

“I showed her pictures of the Manhattan (Casino) and she identified everyone in that picture,” said Adams who presented Bennett with a bouquet of roses thanking her for being a part of the organization that was responsible for encouraging women to get their nursing licenses. “She’s still with us and is in her right mind and ready to come back to the meetings.”

Bennett briefly spoke to what she called her extended family as her own could not attend due to health issues. “I appreciate the compliments and the accolades that have been given to me,” she said.

Rogers continued to speak of the integral part the RN/LPN Association played in the role of what nurses look like today. She spoke of how those in the profession traditionally have uplifted other nurses throughout the community, showing not only their patients compassion while caring for them, but their comrades as well.

“Tonight we want you to remember, to go back, to see where we’ve come from,” said Rogers who admits nurses have some awful high standards to uphold. “We’re just so proud that we have played a part in the careers of so many nurses in this community.”

The evening continued to honor past presidents of the organizations and scholarship recipients who receive monies to help them continue in their dreams of becoming nurses.

The RN/LPN Association holds fundraisers and collects dues in order to support students wishing to become professional nurses, at times members reaching into their own pockets to help fund the men and women who seek assistance each year. One recent recipient was at the banquet and thanked the organization for their contributions to her education.

The Urban League tutorial program was recognized as well. It started many years ago when students who had been admitted to St. Petersburg College were all leaving the nursing program. Studying, scholarships, and helping students make the grade became a driving force behind the tutorial program and members of the RN/LPN Association jumped in full force to help out. “We weren’t going to let that stop us from them being all that they can be,” said Rogers.

The evening continued with talk of the Heritage Association and the new African American Heritage Trail that was recently erected in Midtown. Plaques depicting the Mercy Hospital, the Johnny Ruth Clark Health Center, and Yopp, the association’s founder, give historical information about the area when it was a thriving African American community.

“We are so proud that we are part of the midtown history,” said Rogers.

Adams closed out the evening encouraging not only the nurses of the area to back one another but the entire community as well. “We have a lot of wisdom as nurses and we can learn from each other,” said Adams who was encouraged by those in attendance to move into a leadership role. “We aren’t here to bicker; we need to give each other that homage as often as we can.”

Those in attendance were encouraged to check out the new Heritage Trail and take a look at the historical photos on display at the event.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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