In 1961 — seven years before King's death — the seven black students graduated from Mercy Nursing School and went on to careers in nursing. May continued at Mercy General, where she became head nurse in thoracic surgery.
“One of the girls who started with me became a head nurse at Mercy,” May said. “That was unheard of in the '60s.”
There was a patient who didn't want May to take care of her because of her skin color. She explained to the patient that she was the nurse in charge, but the patient still didn't want May's care.
“I asked my supervisor to find a white nurse to care for the patient,” May said.
That didn't fly with her supervisor. Instead, May's supervisor explained to the patient that May was the nurse in charge and there was no other choice. Finally, the patient agreed and May cared for the woman.
“The sisters and our supervisors stood up for us. It was something we encountered quite a bit at that time, but we learned to handle it effectively and professionally,” May said. “It felt pretty good to have your supervisor stand up for you like that. And the really neat thing was noticing those incidents happening less and less as time went on.”
Without making headlines, May and her supervisors were quietly making progress. There was a new way of doing things at Mercy, and the community slowly came around because of the courage of people like May.
May stayed at Mercy until 1970, when she went on to St. Anthony's to serve as nursing associate head of surgery. In 1974, May moved to Oklahoma State University — Oklahoma City's School of Nursing, where she helped shape future nurses as a professor and associate department head, until retiring in 1993.
As a tribute to her service, there's a nursing scholarship in her name at OSU-OKC. May earned her nursing diploma from Mercy Nursing School, a bachelor's in health education from Oklahoma City University, and a master's in nursing from the University of Oklahoma. She has stayed in touch with most of her fellow black nursing students, and sees them a few times a year.
Rachel Wright is a media relations specialist for Mercy. Mercy includes 33 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children's hospitals, two rehab hospitals and one orthopedic hospital, 300 outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,100 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.