Monday, February 18, 2008

Dr. Godfrey Nurse-American Icon

My life has no doubt, been enhanced by the accomplishments of Dr Godfrey Nurse. Dr Nurse, a native of Guyana was born in 1888. He came to America to study, and in a matter of a few years had acheived his BS and later his medical degree. With extreme difficulty he eventually broke the color line at Harlem hospital in New York where he advocated for the equality for black Nurses and Doctors.
It was this advocacy that got him in trouble, and he was eventually railroaded out of his position at the Hospital, allegedly for surgical incompetency. The charges were proven false and most likely politically motivated. Following a series of hearings, he was restored to his post, having shattered the Tammany Hall imposed impediments to the employment of Black Physicians at Harlem Hospital. He would go on to develop pioneering methods of clinical outpatient treatment.
His work made him wealthy, and equally influential.In later life, he made several huge endowments to the hospital.
Among other things, he was an early owner of the legendary Black Swan Record company, which would record Ethel Waters and Fats Waller in the infancy of the recording industry. A socialite of considerable standing, he was the first black to hold a box seat at the Metropolitan Opera House. He was eventually named to serve on the Electoral College, casting his vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, making him the first Black to hold that distinction.
During the forties he began to accumulate large tracts of ramshackle real estate in central Harlem for the purpose of creating a new healthy environment for Harlem's people. His dream began to take shape under the Title 1 FHA project of 1949, which gave project sponsors a financial inducement to build. Financial redlining on the part of commercial lenders (so endemic to that era) would thwart his plan to build and eventually resulted in his selling out his interest in the project.
Now, you might ask, what has all this to do with me? The answer is that my father, Louis Sargeant, was a soldier in Dr Nurse's army and worked with him in the process of readying the property for its transformation from its slum ridden state to that of one of Harlem's most coveted locations-the Lenox Terrace apartments. The development, which provides housing to more than 1700 families, became our family's home in in 1958(we were its first occupants).
Since then it has become home to a veritable parade of some of Harlem's power players, including the esteemed Percy Sutton , Congressman Charles Rangel, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and a host of others. My family still has a presence in the development 50 years later, and is currently working to provide suitable tribute to the community that Dr Nurse conceived.

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