A drama featuring the real-life clash between a nurse and a nun is unfolding at metro-area libraries.
“Nothing But Mercy — a Private Room Please!” is a Black History Month play that shares the little-known story of how Mercy Hospital was integrated in 1947.
The details for the dramatization were found within the archives of the Sisters of Mercy, said DWe Williams, one of the co-founders of Rhythmically Speaking.
The theatrical group is performing the true-life tale at several libraries in the Metropolitan Library System through Feb. 27, and two performances are planned Tuesday at Mercy, 4300 W Memorial.
The short play dramatizes the standoff between a nurse clinging to a certain way of life and a compassionate nun with a will of steel. Williams said the encounter between the two women over the rights of a black patient occurred shortly after the Sisters of Mercy purchased the 85-bed Oklahoma City General Hospital at 520 NW 12. The hospital moved to its present location in 1974.
About a year ago, Williams said, Lisa Springer, vice president for marketing and communications for Mercy Hospital, asked her to help tell the story of the health center through narrative and other artistic forms of expression. She said she found the notes and documents about the hospital's integration in her work with an archivist at the Mercy Heritage Center, the North Carolina organization that houses the Sisters of Mercy's archives.
“This has been an unexpectedly sweet kind of collaboration,” Williams said.
She said the Sisters of Mercy religious order was founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley in Ireland. The nuns came to Oklahoma in 1884 to educate American Indian children. Williams said six nuns came to Oklahoma City in 1947 specifically to run the hospital, which they renamed Mercy General Hospital.
She said “Nothing But Mercy” is essentially about the confrontation between a nurse and the nun and, on a deeper level, the conflict between the unjust Jim Crow laws of that time and the laws of God followed by the Sisters of Mercy.
“People ultimately know what is the right thing to do, and the nuns knew the right thing to do,” Williams said.
And it all started when a black woman asked if her husband could have a private room.
Breaking ‘Jim Crow etiquette'
Williams said the Jim Crow segregation laws in place in 1947 kept blacks and whites apart in neighborhoods, schools, restaurants and other business establishments.
Even more insidious than these laws was what Williams described as the “Jim Crow etiquette” — a set of unspoken rules designed around the supposed superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks.
“Black men were called boys and the black women were called girls by whites. You didn't speak to a white person first. They had to address a black person for a conversation to take place,” Williams said. “These were things that people didn't talk about — it was just understood.”
She said Oklahoma City hospitals were segregated at the time. Blacks who chose to go to a hospital where whites were given medical care were treated separate from whites, in ward-type facilities or semiprivate rooms in the hospital's basement.
When the wife of a retired black schoolteacher accompanied her husband to Mercy and asked for a private room, it would have been seen as a breach of Jim Crow etiquette by many people at the time, Williams said. According to the Sisters of Mercy's archives, the unnamed man had a severe heart attack, and protocol at that time called for such a patient to be placed in a private room, she said.
Williams said Sister Mary Madeline Feely, the hospital administrator, agreed to the wife's request for a private room and sent word to the nurse's station on the floor where such a room was available. The nurse in charge of that floor sent a message back to the nun saying she refused to care for a black patient on her hospital floor.
Williams said Feely found a private room for the man on another floor. In the meantime, the nun accepted the resignation of the nurse who could not accept the historic change taking place at the hospital.
Story of strength and love
Williams said she knew the real-life drama would be perfect as a play for February, Black History Month. Through a partnership between the Metropolitan Library System and the Oklahoma Arts Council, Rhythmically Speaking often performs short theatrical productions about black history at metro libraries during February, she said.
She said the Sisters of Mercy faced bigotry within the hospital head-on. After the private room request, the nuns made sure medical personnel at the hospital knew they would be required to treat all people, regardless of race, Williams said. She said the sisters soon followed this with the integration of the hospital cafeteria and also began offering maternal care to black women.
Williams said the retired schoolteacher's wife also confronted the racism prevalent during that time.
“It's really a story of the strength of women — these nuns who stood up for a black patient whose illness they felt warranted a private room and this wife who loved her husband so much that she asked for that room,” Williams said.
Springer, at Mercy, said she was thrilled when Williams said she wanted to share the sisters' story with metro residents.
“For me, this is one of the best things I've gotten to do in the job, because if Mercy were to tell this story, it would seem pretty self-serving. For DWe to have done the research and take the initial threads of the story and develop it like she has, it's really a stirring tribute to the Sisters of Mercy and what they continue to represent today,” Springer said.
“As DWe tells it, our story then becomes a bigger story.”
It's really a story of the strength of women — these nuns who stood up for a black patient whose illness they felt warranted a private room and this wife who loved her husband so much that she asked for that room,” Williams said.