Merritt was born in 1881 in Berea, Kentucky. She attended Berea College until 1903, when the Day Law forced the college to segregate. She served as Superintendent of Nursing at Red Cross Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, for 31 years after completing her nurses training at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
She was the only child of Thomas and Kitty Merritt and grew up in Berea. She attended Berea College until 1903, when the Day Law was passed prohibiting the teaching of two races in the same institution.
To help with her tuition, she taught for a while in Manchester, Kentucky. “I didn’t like teaching very much,” she said. “I guess the nursing bug had bit me. Then, too, I taught at Manchester. I had to ride the train from Berea to London, and muleback 24 miles to Manchester.”
In September 1904, she began classes at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., to further her nursing education. In 1906, she received her professional nursing diploma.
On October 30, 1913, she became a registered nurse. When she returned to Kentucky as a private nurse, the state had yet to implement legislation defining processes for giving registered nursing registration.
“I was nursing at the home of Cassius M. Clay at Richmond when [Mitchell Hospital administrators] wrote for me to come as superintendent. It was a big title, but the pay was only $25 a month and my keep.”
She obtained a position at Mitchell Hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas, but stayed only two years. She returned to Berea in 1909 and worked as a housekeeper for W. G. Frost, president of Berea College. Merritt met Lucy Belknap, a member of the board of Red Cross Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, during a trip to Chatauqua, New York.
Stone recommended Merritt to the hospital’s board of directors after being impressed by her. The head of the board, Dr. E. D. Whedbee, quickly called Miss Merritt to invite her to the position of superintendent of Red Cross Hospital. On September 30, 1911, she accepted the position.
The Red Cross Hospital, founded in 1899, was unaffiliated with the Red Cross. It was founded by individuals who saw a need for hospital treatment for the Black community as well as training for Black women who aspired to become professional nurses. The hospital began operations at 435 S. 6th Street with four beds and one nurse.
When Merritt began at the hospital it was located at 1436 South Shelby Street in Louisville, Kentucky. The hospital occupied two floors of a small building. Merritt toured the building with Miss Stone.
“After the first trip through the building, my heart sank. This couldn’t be the place — the flooring wasn’t covered, the kitchen stove was warped, the operating room was upstairs, everything was so discouraging. But I didn’t want them to feel I didn’t want to do something for my own people. I, then and there, decided that I would stay one year. I forgot when the year was up — and it soon stretched into 34 years.”
Merritt left Red Cross Hospital in 1945 after assisting in the hospital’s transformation from a dismal, unfinished structure to a medical facility for 100 patients.
President Woodrow Wilson recognized her contribution to the Red Cross during World War I with a certificate of achievement, and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses honored her with the Mary Mahoney Medal for Distinguished Service in 1949.
In 1953, Mary Merritt died. Central State Hospital in Lakeland, Kentucky, dedicated a building to her as the “guiding spirit… and major inspiration” of Red Cross Hospital in 1955.