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HomeATS CommunityPresident's Message ▶ The Black Angels: A Message from ATS President M. Patricia Rivera, MD, ATSF
The Black Angels: A Message from ATS President M. Patricia Rivera, MD, ATSF

Tuberculosis, also known as the “White Plague,” – killed 5.6 million people in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, when there was no direct cure. This disease continues to be a worldwide danger today, as it was in the early-mid 20th century when Sea View Hospital began operating as a tuberculosis hospital on Staten Island, New York.

To help with treating TB patients starting in the 1920s and after the end of World War II in 1945, Sea View recruited Black nurses from the Jim Crow South to care for large numbers of pediatric and adult patients with tuberculosis. This was during a nursing shortage in New York City. By 1929, white nurses began resigning from Sea View, refusing to continue treating seriously ill and highly contagious TB patients. But Sea View’s Black nurses did not abandon their patients and continued to provide them with critical medical care. Symbolic of their efforts, Sea View’s approximately 300 Black nurses became known as the “Black Angels.”

In addition to the challenges of caring for patients with tuberculosis, these nurses encountered frequent racial hostilities and discrimination at Sea View long before laws prohibited such conduct. According to a New York Times article published a few weeks ago:


“In 1937, when the residence reopened after an expansion, nurses discovered signs in the new dining hall bearing the words “Reserved for Whites.” They went straight to The New York Amsterdam News, an influential Black newspaper, which ran a story under the headline “Nurses Stage Walkout for Discrimination.”
With racial tensions still simmering in New York City two years after what became known as the Harlem race riot of 1935, NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia hopped a ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island to meet with Sea View staff and assuage their concerns. After meeting with Sea View administrators, Mayor LaGuardia announced that “such segregation would not be tolerated.”  The discriminatory dining hall signs were removed.


Despite racial invective and discrimination, the nurses persevered, focusing on caring for their seriously ill patients and being involved in many pioneering treatments. For example, in 1952, Black nurses facilitated the trials at Sea View that refined the use of Isoniazid, the first successful direct treatment of tuberculosis. Although the Sea View buildings were abandoned in the 1960s, New York City designated the structures as part of a historic district in 1985. Some of Sea View’s former care facilities have been renovated for new uses.

TB remains among the world’s top infectious killers globally, claiming 1.6 million lives annually. In 2022, 8,300 TB cases were reported in the U.S., compared to 7,874 cases in 2021. Back in September, the United Nations convened a high-level meeting on the fight against tuberculosis on the theme of “advancing science, finance and innovation, and their benefits, to urgently end the global tuberculosis epidemic, in particular, by ensuring equitable access to prevention, testing, treatment, and care.”

As the President of the ATS, an organization committed to the eradication of TB since its founding in1905 as the American Sanitorium Association, I commend the Black nurses of Sea View for who they are: heroines who faced down and overcame the insidious racial discrimination and segregation of the Jim Crow era to care for patients suffering from TB. Learn more from New York author Maria Smilios’ new book “The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis” and don’t miss her appearance at the ATS 2024 International Conference in San Diego, May 17-22.

May we all aspire to their courage and commitment to patient care as medical professionals.