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.”
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.