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.”