Lois Faye May remembers exactly where she was when she learned Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot: working in an operating room at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City, then Mercy General in midtown Oklahoma City.
“Someone heard it on the radio and came into the operating room to tell us. It was a really scary time, because we weren't sure what was going to happen,” said May, who was one of Mercy's first black nurses. “Everybody was more or less in shock. Because of what was happening in other places in the country, some of us were afraid to go to work.”
In shock, certainly, but May said she and her friends didn't lose hope. She had already seen King's impact and was a leader of change herself. May was in the first fully integrated class at Mercy Nursing School, from 1958-1961, 10 years before King's death, at the height of the civil rights movement.
“The year before us, there was one black student, but in our class there were seven of us,” May said. “Mercy was the only place around accepting African-American nursing students at the time.”
Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which ruled segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, many schools continued segregation or complete rejection of black students. It wasn't until 1962 that James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi — a historical event that triggered violence and riots, prompting President John F. Kennedy to deploy 5,000 federal troops to the university to restore peace.
Like Meredith, May and her fellow nurses faced adversity during their years at nursing school. But, just because their experiences didn't make headlines doesn't mean they didn't make an impact.
“It was the way of the times. Your skills and integrity would be questioned simply because you're black,” May said. “Before college, our high school teachers, parents, church and community leaders tried to prepare us for the hazards we would face. We had a lot of support, and Mercy had already come so far.”
May remembers leaning on her fellow black students, and being protected by her instructors and the sisters of Mercy.
“The nuns and instructors had to stand up for us almost daily with patients and physicians who weren't accustomed to working with black nurses,” May said.
May also remembers one nun in particular whom she describes as “no nonsense.” Specifically, she remembers the sister having zero tolerance for racial discrimination.
“I remember Sister Mary Alvera. She was my supervisor in surgery. She was quiet and very caring — but she wouldn't stand for any nonsense,” May said. “She expected people to change with the times, and she let them know it.”