About six decades ago, three Black nurses — Mildred Smith, Patricia Taylor and Agnes Stokes — fought segregation at a Hampton hospital by refusing to eat in a segregated area of the hospital. They were fired as a result but they sued the hospital and won.
Their little-known 1963 landmark civil rights case recently got attention following the release of the film “The Dixie 3: A Story on Civil Rights in Nursing”, which tells their story.
In the 1960s, Dixie Hospital, which later became known as Sentara Hampton General, was segregated. Besides newborns, Black patients were treated on the second floor while White patients were attended to on the other five stories. Employees including nurses also faced segregation. At the cafeteria where food was served, White employees could eat there after buying their meals but Black employees were not allowed to do so. After buying their meals, they must move to a small classroom to eat. The place was cramped to the extent that some even ate while standing up.
This was too much to bear for Smith. So on August 8, 1963, after buying her lunch, she sat in the cafeteria. Her fellow Black nurses Stokes and Taylor joined her.
“We were tired of taking a back seat,” Smith recalled to the Daily Press in 2002. She and her fellow nurses were warned by authorities after their first protest. But they paid no attention and protested again the following day — sitting in the cafeteria to eat. Smith, Stokes and Taylor were sacked but they sued the hospital in federal court arguing that “it was violating federal law by receiving federal funds and engaging in racial discrimination,” the Daily Press reported.
Three years later, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Dixie Hospital to reinstate the three nurses after stressing that racial discrimination was illegal in publicly funded institutions. The court also asked the hospital to give the nurses a month’s back pay.
“It made us more ambitious and more aggressive in our achievements,” Robert Smith said following the death of his mother Smith in 2013. He had retired from the U.S. Army and was an assistant principal at Hampton’s Tarrant Elementary School.
To Sharon Williams, her aunt Smith was “a doer, not one to sit on her laurels and watch the grass grow. She’s going to be sorely missed.”
Smith will indeed be missed but her legacy and that of her colleagues remain as their stand against racism helped open doors for future generations. And that is why Denetra Hampton, a retired U.S. Navy Nurse Corps officer turned filmmaker, decided to highlight their act of civil disobedience in the 35-minute film starring registered nurses Melanie Outlaw, Angela Mitchell and T’Wanda Lowery.
Hampton hopes that the film which was screened in February this year at the Hampton History Museum will bring out the challenges still inherent in the health industry.
“They took a step that reverberated,” Outlaw, a nurse manager at the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who portrays Smith, said of the Dixie 3. “There could be someone waiting for you to take that step.”